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Figures released this week by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) show the average working week in the UK continues to rise.

According to the figures, which take into account part-time working, the average working week in the UK is 31 hours. The average has seen a steady increase since the financial crisis in 2008. On average, workers are now working 34 hours a year more than they were then.

In the decade leading to the financial crisis, the average had fallen consistently and the average is yet to get back to the same levels of 20 years ago. According to the ONS, workers in the UK are working the equivalent of a week’s work less a year than they did in 1998. However, if the current trend continues, it won’t be long until the average is back to those levels.

The figures show there are considerable regional differences. In London the average working week is said to be 33 hours, while those in the nearby South West of England work over three hours less; 29.9 per week. The average working week in Scotland is said to be 30.5 hours. The Scots clearly know when to call it a day.

The extra two hours a week worked by the average London worker compared with the UK average means they will work around three working weeks more over the year. The difference can be put down to a number of factors, such as London benefitting from greater job availability, as well as the UK’s highest proportion of workers in full-time employment (79%), each working an average of 38 hours per week. There are also higher concentrations of certain industries which typically work longer hours, such as financial services.

Although it is often suggested that the UK is prone to a culture of working long hours, this is not necessarily the case from a comparative perspective when you look at the averages in other countries. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the UK’s average weekly working hours are considerably fewer than those of the likes of Russia (38), Turkey (35), Ireland (35) and United States (34). Spare a thought for workers in Mexico who are said to work over 43 hours per week on average. However, the average is much lower in the likes of Germany (26) and France (29).

Working time in the UK is governed by the Working Time Regulations 1998 (WTR 1998). Prior to the introduction of the WTR 1998 hours of work were largely unregulated. This is likely to be a factor in explaining why the average working week in the decade from 1998 fell consistently.

The WTR 1998 contain a number of important obligations on employers. These include taking all reasonable steps in keeping with the need to protect workers’ health and safety to ensure that each worker’s average working time (including overtime) does not exceed 48 hours per week. Generally this average is calculated on the basis of a 17-week reference period and the limit is applicable to all workers. However, under the WTR 1998, a worker may agree to opt-out of the 48-hour average limit. The opt-out must be in writing and can be contained in the worker’s contract, although ideally this should be contained in a separate agreement. Employers are also required to maintain up-to-date records of all opted-out workers. In practice this means that employers merely need to keep a copy of opt-out agreements, or a list of opted-out workers.

The UK waged a long battle within the EU to hang on to the right to agree an opt out of the 48 hour maximum average working week in circumstances where the direction of travel in many EU member countries was to compulsorily reduce working hours further. Following  Brexit the UK will be free to deregulate working hours further, albeit that would go against the grain of the Government’s undertakings to protect and enhance workers’ rights. However, as we have seen this week, Mrs May always reserves the right to change her mind!

If you require advice on working time issues, please do not hesitate to contact a member of the Stronachs Employment Team.

Rowan Alexander, Solicitor

Chambers Leading Firm 2019

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