Ever since the Industrial Revolution, shorter working hours have been synonymous with social progress. Limiting working hours has been a constant demand of trade unions. It is part of a continuous historical flow: from a maximum of 48 hours set in ILO Convention No. 1 (1919) to a legal working week of 35 hours in France (1998).
For employees, the aim is to achieve a better work-life balance, but limiting working time is also in the employer’s best interests, to keep workers productive and efficient. Furthermore, it may well serve the goal of combating unemployment by sharing work (“Work less for everyone to work”).
Europe: the past era of social progress
European Directive 93/104/EC, based on the EC Treaty, which had the stated aim to “promote improved working conditions and an improved standard of living for workers, so as to make possible their harmonisation while the improvement is being maintained” (Article 117 of the EC Treaty, see currently Article 151 of the TFEU), lays down minimum requirements:
“This Directive shall not affect Member States’ right to apply or introduce laws, regulations or administrative provisions more favourable to the protection of the safety and health of workers or to facilitate or permit the application of collective agreements or agreements concluded between the two sides of industry which are more favourable to the protection of the safety and health of workers”.
Working hours in the European institutions
In the field of social policy, higher-ranking legal instruments lay down “minimum requirements” (and maximum working time is one of them), while allowing for lower-ranking instruments to implement them in a more favourable sense.
Thus, the original Staff Regulations of officials of the institutions (adopted in 1961) set a maximum working week of 45 hours. Within this limit, the Staff Regulations left it up to each institution to set the working hours applicable.
In 1972, the maximum provided for in the Staff Regulations (Article 55) was reduced to 42 hours. In 1988, the European institutions all took internal decisions to reduce the working week from 38.5 to 37.5 hours. We would never have imagined that that achievement would be reversed.