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EU questions whether Sweden follows the working time directive

| Text: Kerstin Ahlberg, editor EU & Arbetsrätt

Does Sweden really have to ban 24-hour shifts? This has been hotly debated lately, with angry firemen taking to the streets to be allowed to continue to work for a whole day and night in a stretch.

It is because rules on daily rest periods have been tightened after the European Commission pointed out that collective agreements for municipal and regional workers were not compatible with the EU working time directive.

Others, like midwives and nurses and other healthcare workers, welcome the changes and see it as an improvement to the working environment. It was indeed complaints from one health sector group – ambulance workers – that made the Commission aware of the very long shifts that the collective agreement allowed. In reality, ambulance drivers could work for 30 hours straight. 

The working time directive does allow for collective agreements that contain exemptions from the rule on 11 hours’ rest in every 24-hour period. But if they do, workers must be guaranteed equivalent periods of compensatory rest or “appropriate protection”, and there were no such rules in the agreement.

The employers' organisations the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions (SKR) and Sobona agreed with their trade union counterparts that the collective agreement had to be renegotiated.

The main rule in the new agreement is that 11 hours’ rest must be included in each 24-hour period of work. That means an end, in principle, to the 24-hour shifts which are normal for rescue services, and around which firefighters have organised their lives, since the arrangement also gives them extra long rest periods.

Many of them also question whether it really is necessary to completely remove the opportunity to work 24-hour shifts and suggest the social partners have been too defensive in their collective agreement negotiations. Would it not have been sufficient to clarify the rules around compensatory rest periods? That discussion seems to be continuing and there is no clear answer as yet. 

What is clear, however, is that both the social partners and the Swedish government have been very focused on satisfying the Commission. In its written communication with the government, the Commission has in more general terms questioned Sweden’s way of allowing the social partners themselves to make sure the collective agreements are aligned with EU law.

It doubts that this will really be sufficient to help individual workers understand and uphold their rights. 

The government and social partners have hoped that the Commission will back down on this point if only the collective agreements in question are changed. It remains to be seen what will happen. 

The working time directive is a hot topic for other reasons too, both in Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Recently, the Commission published a report detailing how all the member states have implemented the directive. The three Nordic countries come in for criticism on several points (the Commission does not assess how the EEA countries Norway and Iceland are doing).

The Commission is quite careful in parts. For instance, Finland “seems” to allow workers economic compensation rather than compensatory rest periods for missing day or week rest periods – which would be in breach of the directive. There are other examples.

The Commission is quite careful in parts. For instance, Finland “seems” to allow that workers receive economic compensation instead of compensatory rest for missing daily or weekly rest periods – which would be in breach of the directive.

There are more examples. The Commission is more firm on other points: The reference period for calculating of the average working hours for night workers is four months in both Denmark, Finland and Sweden, and that is too long says the Commission. 

Reviews like this are being done regularly. The fact that a country is highlighted in these reports does not necessarily mean that the Commission is then prepared to bring it in front of the EU Court. The review can primarily be seen as a hint to member states about what they should be addressing.


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