The current uncertainty surrounding the rights of oil workers under the Working Time Directive looks set to continue well beyond the outcome of an Employment Tribunal preliminary hearing held in Aberdeen this week.

Offshore workers currently working a 2 weeks on/2 weeks off shift pattern claim that they are entitled to an additional 20 days paid annual leave. The oil companies involved however are arguing that the Directive does not apply throughout the North Sea and that the current shift pattern already meets the requirement of the regulations as workers can take their holidays during their time at home. Trade unions representing the workers believe that the two week blocks are essential rest periods and that the situation is akin to asking someone working a standard 9-5 week to take all their holidays at weekends.

This preliminary hearing is restricted to the issue of jurisdiction. The UK implementing legislation refers to the territorial waters of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and it is contended on behalf of the oil companies that this term usually only refers to waters within 12 miles of land and therefore the legislation only applies to oil rigs within that radius. However, given what is at stake - the right of thousands of oil workers to 20 days' paid leave each year - both sides are likely to stand their ground and appeal any unfavourable ruling. A ruling is expected in around a month.

This hearing follows the recent decision of the European Parliament to vote in favour of ending the UK's ability to opt-out of the Working Time Directive in respect of the maximum 48-hour working week. In contrast to the European Commission, MEPs want any inactive time spent on call to be included in calculating hours worked. It is also likely that the reference period for calculating average hours worked per week will be increased from 17 weeks to 12 months which will allow some flexibility for longer hours to be worked during busier times provided the yearly average falls below the 48 hour maximum.

Although the agreement of the Council of Ministers is required, an end to the opt-out and to the right to work beyond 48 hours per week would have a massive impact across business, including the oil industry. However, the Government has maintained a strong opposition to losing the UK opt-out and according to the prime minister: "The vote is wrong. It is completely misguided." Blair confirmed he had "no intention whatever" of abolishing Britain's opt-out, and said he believed the government would be able to reverse the vote through the Council of Ministers.

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