RMT submission to the DTI consultation on the individual opt-out in the Working Time Directive

The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) welcomes the opportunity to contribute to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) preliminary consultation paper Working Time - Widening the Debate. The DTI consultation is taking place as the European Commission is in the process of reviewing aspects of the Working Time Directive.

The RMT organises over 70,000 workers in all sectors of the transport industry and with over 40,000 members employed on the railway is the largest of the rail unions. We negotiate on behalf of our members with some 150 employers and the RMT's aim, as the largest specialist transport trade union, is to protect and promote their interests throughout every part of the transport industry.


The campaign against excessive working hours has been high on the RMT agenda for over a century. As long ago as 1897 the 'all-grades' programme of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants (ASRS), a forerunner of the RMT, was calling for a maximum 10-hour day for signallers, an 8 hour day for locomotive drivers, shunters' and goods staff and a maximum 48 hour week for permanent way staff.[1]

In the present long working hours remain endemic in the rail industry. Despite steady progress in reducing the basic working week towards 35 hours, for many RMT members total weekly hours are nearer the 'Hidden Limit' of 72 hours (This forms part of the guidelines for railway safety critical workers adopted after the Hidden Inquiry into the 1988 Clapham rail disaster.) In 2003 the RMT estimated that the 72 hour limit was exceeded every month at each of the major infrastructure maintenance and renewal companies in around 80 incidences.  

As of September 2004 the infrastructure maintenance contracts have now been brought in-house by Network Rail leaving six main track renewals companies. In addition there is a complex spiders-web of hundreds of subcontractors working on the railway infrastructure; the long hours culture is especially prevalent at these companies.

The use and abuse of the opt out

The RMT is disappointed that the framework of the consultation document is one which automatically assumes that the opt-out from the 48 hour average working week is triumph of choice over prescription in the labour market. We would fully endorse the remarks made by TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber that "it's hard to take the consultation seriously. The Minister's statement makes it clear that the government has made its mind up to resist an effective crackdown on Britain's long hours' culture."[2]

The UK Government's use of individual opt-out clause has meant that the Working Time Directive has not proved effective in protecting UK workers from the long hours' culture; a culture which causes stress, ill-health and has a damaging effect on relationships with family and friends. TUC research indicates that 17% of the workforce - almost 4 million people spread across managerial, professional, skilled and unskilled grades - work more than 48 hours a week with almost half a million people working more than 60 hours a week. 46% of these employees who work more than 48 hours a week said that they do so because they needed the overtime money, with 34% doing so due to unmanageable work loads.[3]

The enforcement regime is inadequate and subject to widespread employer abuse. Disturbingly, the TUC also found that one third of those people who have signed an opt-out say that they had not been given a choice when they did so.[4]The RMT has previously reported to the TUC that P&O North Sea Ferries send the opt-out directly to all employees in order to avoid collective bargaining on the issue. The accompanying letter uses the following wording: 'Please fill in the attached form and return it to the office'.

Excessive working hours are endemic in every sector where RMT organises. We represent members in 50% of the top ten occupations who work the longest hours a week.

Occupation Total hours worked weekly
Heavy Goods Vehicle Drivers 52.9
Scaffolders, stagers, riggers 51.3
Mobile machine drivers and operatives 49.5
Farm workers 48.2
Security guards and related occupations 47.3
Quarry workers 46.7
Bus and coach drivers 46.7
Rail construction and maintenance 46.3
Van drivers 46.0
Construction operatives 45.8

Source: Income Data Services publication Pay, conditions and labour market changes 896

Horizontal Amending Directive

In August 2003 the Horizontal Amending Directive extended the provisions of the Working Time Directive to cover workers in the transport and off-shore industries. At that timethe RMT conducted a survey of our branches in order to see how the how the Horizontal Amending Directive (HAD) was being implemented in practice. We found that the privatised rail companies were being guided by an overriding desire to minimise the disturbance to existing rosters and work patterns. All possible derogations were being applied and railway workers were being encouraged to opt out of the 48 hour week, with the necessary forms being made readily available to them - in a numerous cases the forms were being sent to all employees.

This came as no real surprise to the RMT. The Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC), who had coordinated the response of the individual train operating companies during the consultation on the HAD, said that one of the key issues for the railway was: "The value of the right of employees to opt-out of the 48 hour average working week limitation".[5]

Excessive hours andHealth and Safety at work

The consultation document suggests that a more effective record keeping regime could be used to prevent excessive working hours in situations where an individual worker has agreed to an opt-out. Notwithstanding the fact the working over 48 hours is in itself excessive, the adequacy of such an approach is brought into serious question following a recent accident near Hayle, Cornwall in which a railway contractor was seriously injured after being run over by a Road-Rail Vehicle (RRV). A Rail Safety and Standards Board Inquiry (RSSB) into the accident found that some of the workers employed by a railway sub- contractors involved in the accident were expected, as a matter of course, to work excessive hours.

The Inquiry discovered that a machine operator in charge of an RRV involved in the accident had left his home in Plymouthat 23.00 on Saturday to drive to Hayle. He arrived at about 03.00 and then slept in his van before reporting to the signing on point at 05.45. Following the accident, which happened at 12.45, he was required to remain on the site in order to remove the RRV; the operator eventually left the site at around 19.00 and arrived back at his home about midnight.

Another machine operator, who was standing on the trailer involved in the incident, had been rostered to work from 06.00 to 18.00 on the day of the accident. In the event he stayed on site until 22.30 in order to complete his work. He was then called to report to work at 06.15 on the Sunday. This employee, who had had 10 stitches in his hand following the accident, told the RSSB inquiry that his employer had assessed his fitness to work the extra shift on Sunday morning and that it was common practice for machine operators to work excess shifts. The machine operator had worked 16 hours on Saturday, been involved in an accident, received an injury which required 10 stitches, had less than eight hours rest and then reported for work the next day for another 12 hour shift. At the end of his shift he had to complete a three hour drive home to the Welsh Borders.

Remarkably however, and despite records being kept of the hours worked by the RRV machine operators, the Inquiry seemed satisfied that the employer had appropriate policies and procedures to control excessive hours in place.


The TUC report that the use of the opt-out has meant that "progress towards a 48 hour week has been achingly slow" and that the number of long-hours workers was only reduced by 3% after the implementation of the Working Time Directive.

In the Road Transport sector a separate Road Transport Directive (RTD) will come into force by 23 March 2005 and will apply to workers who are currently subject to the provisions of the European Drivers' Hours Rules. There is no individual opt out from the 48 hour maximum average working week in the RTD. Our submission to the consultation to the on the RTD said "The RMT supports the introduction of the Road Transport Directive (RTD) as an important contribution to improving health and safety at work for mobile workers. We have long campaigned for more effective measures to ensure that mobile workers receive adequate protection from long working hours".

The RMT firmly believes that the individual opt out should be abolished, as is the case with the RTD, across all sectors and industries. If the Government were to take took this important step it would enable working people to strike a reasonable work-life balance and help to protect employees from the stress and other ill-health problems that are associated with the long-hours culture that currently bedevils the UK labour market.

[1]The Railwaymen - Phillip Bagwell p.184

[2]TUC press release 29 June 2004

[3]TUC report: Working Time Directive Review: the use and abuse of the opt-out in the UK. February 2004

[4]TUC report: Working Time Directive: the use and abuse of the opt-out in the UKFebruary 2004

[5]RSSB Annual Safety Performance Report 2002/3