Six Hour Limit Implemented

Businesses were ordered yesterday to ensure that their staff took minimum rest periods, after existing guidelines were dismissed as "meaningless" by the European Court of Justice.

The ruling means that employers must ensure that staff take off at least 11 hours between working days, and have a minimum of 1 day off a week, as well as a 20-minute rest after every 6 hours of work. Business groups said that employees would be unable to choose to work long hours to earn more money because they would be forced to take breaks against their will.

Brussels have argued that the decision simply brought Britain in line with the rest of Europe.

The ruling was an embarrassing defeat for the Department of Trade and Industry, which drew up guidelines in 1998 stating that employers merely had to advise staff that they were allowed certain rest breaks.

European judges said yesterday that the DTI’s advice encouraged employers to break the rules about time off. These were agreed at a summit by all EU members, including Britain, as part of the European Working Time Directive .

Syed Kamall, a Conservative MEP, said that the ruling would make Britain’s labour market less flexibile by preventing employees from choosing to work longer hours. "This is a kick in the teeth for British workers who may want to work longer hours to pay for extra bills or family holidays," he said. "While many people have a healthy work-life balance, others may choose to put in extra hours to achieve their ambitions. Telling British employers to send them home against their will is nonsensical."

Employers fear that the ruling could leave them open to employment tribunal cases on alleged abuses of the directive.

Susan Anderson, director of human resources policy at the CBI, said: "The realities of working life cannot be ignored. Employers can’t stand over employees to make sure they take a full lunch or coffee break. Similarly, employers cannot police what employees do during their weekends or evenings – whether they take a second job, for example, or spend an hour or two thinking about a work issue. And employees do not want big brother looking over their shoulder to check what they are doing in their own time."

But Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, said: "Employers will now have to do their utmost to ensure their staff get the breaks they are entitled to. The Government must now change its guidance on rest breaks to ensure that workers know their rights and can benefit from them, and that employers know their responsibilities and meet them fully."

The ruling from the court in Luxemburg stated: "The [DTI] guidelines are liable to render the right of workers to daily and weekly rest periods meaningless because they do not oblige employers to ensure that workers actually take the minimum rest period, contrary to the aims of the Working Time Directive."

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