The directive is designed to cover most of the working population, but it is imprecisely worded. The most predictable effect will be that the hours worked by lawyers will increase (and so will their earnings).
How many people work more than 48 hours?
Around four million regularly work more than 48 hours, but not all of them are covered.
Are we talking about 48 hours a week or an annual average?
The working time limit is meant to be averaged over a four-month reference period, but there is provision for it to be extended by law or collective agreement to either six or 12 months.
Will it apply to staff in public and private sectors?
Yes. Public-sector workers and those who are employed by privatised companies, which are both considered to be "emanations of the state", have a better chance of invoking the directive from 23 November than workers elsewhere. Managements will be under an immediate obligation to comply; unions are prepared to take court action if their rights are ignored.
Which industries will be excluded?
Air, rail, road, sea, inland waterway, lake transport, sea fishing and maritime industries. However, the European Commission is planning legislation to include them eventually.
Any other exceptions?
Some employees will not be included even in industries which are covered by the directive. Exempted are employees who determine their own hours or where the amount of time they work is not measured or predetermined. Examples given are "managing executives or other persons with autonomous decision-making powers"; people who work for their families; and those who officiate at religious ceremonies. Doctors in training are also excluded.
What if someone refuses to work more than 48 hours?
Because the 48 hours is an average over a period, no one can suddenly down tools after 48 hours have elapsed. For employees to invoke the directive, they would have to prove they had been made to work more than 48 hours over a period of four months and that they were not categorised among the exceptions. Peter Reid, the expert on the subject at the Engineering Employers' Federation, believes a complainant might have to wait two or three years for a result.
What are the other main provisions?
An equally important clause gives a guaranteed minimum three weeks' annual leave rising to four weeks in 1999. Almost 2.5 million employees have no paid leave; 4.1 million get less than three weeks and 5.9 million are entitled to less than four weeks. Other provisions are a maximum average eight-hour shift in 24 hours for night workers; a rest break after six hours' non-stop work; Rest periods of 11 hours daily and 35 hours weekly.
In the end, will it make any difference?
The Government thinks not - because there are too many loopholes in the proposed legislation - while unions think they will be able to negotiate improvements.