One of the many potential impacts of Brexit is the effect it will have on certain aspects of Employment Law, including the Working Time Regulations (WTR). These were written into British Law in 1998 as a result of the EU’s Working Time Directive.
Under WTR, employees are protected from working more than 48 hours per week, and they also stipulate 11 consecutive hours of rest in any 24-hour period. For those employees looking to secure additional hours to boost pay packets, there is the option to ‘opt out’ of complying with WTR, and certain sectors are exempt from WTR anyway (those working in a role where 24-hour staffing is required. However, as it stands, the majority of British workers are protected from unreasonable working hours by the WTR. The question, then, is whether WTR will be transposed into UK law.
For vet surgeons and nurses, the potential for the protections offered by WTR being overturned looms large. A significant proportion of young and newly qualified veterinary professionals often feel pressured into opting out of the 48-hour clause. Already working long hours, the removal of the band of legal protection securing the right not to be forced into working longer hours is a daunting prospect.
These fears are substantiated when the views of the new Brexit minister, Martin Callanan, are taken into account. He recently suggested that, once out of the EU, the UK would be better served by scrapping the Working Time Directive, which he views as a barrier to ‘actually employing people’. This is in stark contrast to Prime Minister Theresa May’s pre-election promise to maintain all workers’ rights currently guaranteed by EU law. Indeed, Mrs May promised “the greatest extension of rights and protection for employees by any Conservative government in history.” However, a suggested amendment to ensure employment rights could only be amended by primary legislation was voted down. This opens the way for future governments to erode these rights by the implementation of secondary legislation – a process that carries far less oversight.
The implications for not adopting WTR in their current form reaches further than limiting working hours. The right to paid holiday is also part of the Working Time Directive. The directive also protects the right to have time on-call being taken into account for holiday pay calculation purposes. This will give Practices greater flexibility over how and when they pay bonuses, but it may also call in to question what constitutes normal remuneration. What rules will replace WTR when it comes to calculating holiday pay? Will this issue become a greater bargaining chip during the hiring process? Will younger and newly qualified veterinary staff feel pressurised into giving up holiday time in order to secure a position with a Practice? In an industry where many newly qualified professionals feel under-supported already, what effect will this have on the industry’s ability to attract and retain staff?
The BVA’s views
The British Veterinary Association (BVA) has laid out its view and aims for the veterinary profession post-Brexit. One of its primary principles is to ensure working rights for non-British EU vets and veterinary nurses already working and studying in the UK, allowing them to remain. Additionally, the BVA suggests the inclusion of veterinary medicine on the Shortage Occupation List. Should these principles fail to be adopted, and EU staff be forced to leave the UK, and should the WTR as we currently know it be abandoned, we could conceivably see British veterinary surgeons and nurses forced into working significantly longer hours on a permanent basis, with no protection over vital holiday time. In a high-stress occupation, this can only spell trouble for the workers, for the animals and ultimately, for the industry.
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