Brussels, 20 November 2013
Working time: Commission refers Ireland to Court for not respecting EU rules in public health services
The European Commission has decided to refer Ireland to the EU's Court of Justice for not complying with the EU rules on limits to working time for doctors in public health services. In particular, Ireland fails to ensure that in practice these doctors work no more than 48 hours per week on average, including any overtime.
Irish national law respects the requirements of the EU's Working Time Directive by providing for limits to doctors’ working time. However, in practice public hospitals often do not apply the rules to doctors in training or other non-consultant hospital doctors. There are still numerous cases where junior doctors are regularly required to work continuous 36-hour shifts, to work over 100 hours in a single week and 70-75 hours per week on average, and to continue working without adequate breaks for rest or sleep.
The Commission considers this situation a serious infringement of the EU's Working Time Directive, endangering not only doctors' health and safety but also their patients as over-tired doctors risk making mistakes The Commission became aware of the infringement following national reports highlighting the lack of compliance, and after receiving a complaint from an Irish doctors' organisation. The Commission already requested Ireland on several occasions to take the necessary measures to ensure that the practice of public authorities complies with the Directive (see IP/11/1121). While the Irish authorities have replied to those requests, the concrete progress made in practice is simply insufficient, given the excessive number of hours doctors are still required to work in Ireland.
Under the Working Time Directive, workers are entitled on health and safety grounds to a maximum limit to their working time. This may not exceed 48 hours per week on average, including any overtime. Workers are also entitled to a minimum of 11 hours’ uninterrupted rest per day, and a minimum additional uninterrupted weekly rest of 24 hours. There is some flexibility to postpone minimum rests for justified reasons, but only provided the worker can still take all the missed rest hours soon afterwards.
Employed doctors have at all times been covered by the Working Time Directive. However, for doctors in training, the limit to working time was phased in gradually over the period 2000-2009. Since 1 August 2009, the 48-hour limit applies to doctors in training (in a small number of Member States, not including Ireland, a transitional limit of 52 hours continued to apply till 31 July 2011). The Directive’s rules on minimum rest periods have applied in full to doctors in training in all EU Member States since 1 August 2004.
Consultant doctors may be exempt from the Directive’s main provisions under an exception for workers who are sufficiently senior to exercise real autonomy over the amount and timing of their working hours. Self-employed persons fall outside the scope of the Directive.
The so-called ‘opt-out’, which allows working longer than 48 hours on average if the worker freely consents, is not relevant here, as Ireland does not use this provision. In any event, the hours which these doctors are working are so long that they exceed what could be permitted under the 'opt-out'. Moreover, the Directive does not allow any ‘opt-out’ from the minimum rest requirements.
For more information
On the general infringement procedure: MEMO/12/12
On the November infringement package decisions: MEMO/13/1005
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