Union backs freelancers in bid for paid leave

Roger Pearson

The European Court of Justice is to consider a trade union's legal challenge to government regulations which restrict the holiday entitlement of thousands of freelance workers who are employed on short-term contracts.

The case, mounted by the Broadcasting Entertainment Cinematograph and Theatre Union (Bectu), has been referred to Europe by Mr Justice Sullivan.

The judge said he was satisfied that Bectu's arguments – that the Working Time Regulations, introduced in October last year, are flawed and should be changed – clearly merit a reference.

When the case gets to Europe, the argument looks set to centre on the EU Working Time Directive. This gives every worker the right to three weeks paid annual leave, rising to four weeks in November next year.

UK regulations are in-tended to give effect to the directive. But Bectu claims that instead they unlawfully restrict the rights to those who have worked for more than 13 continuous weeks for the same employer.

It says the regulations effectively deny many thousands of workers their holiday entitlement if they work on contracts of fewer than 13 weeks. And it says that this situation is not changed even if they work a significant number of weeks on different short-term contracts throughout the year.

The Department of Trade and Industry has adopted a firm stance and has refused to consider revising the legislation.

When the case reaches Europe, Bectu will argue that the 13-week qualifying period is unlawful and defeats the aims of the EU directive.

The judge's reference went through more or less unopposed. Both sides in the dispute agree that the European Court should be asked to clarify issues of European law.

One of the questions that will be raised centres on the legitimacy of member states taking into account the cost to an employer of conferring holiday entitlement rights on workers who are employed for less than the qualifying period.

The outcome of the dispute will affect freelance journalists, TV news crews, film crews and many other casual workers.