Working Time Directive sets parameters for SMEs.
SMEs should be aware that the EU's Working Time Directive offers them no specific exemptions. The directive's main terms relate to provision of minimum daily and weekly rest periods, maximum weekly working time, ie the 48-hour week, provision of annual paid leave, protection of the health and safety of night and shift workers. Small business concerns have been focused largely on the question of the 48-hour week - and with some justification. Half of the workers in Europe who work over 48 hours a week and two-thirds of workers in Europe who work non-standard hours (ie not 9am to 5pm) are based in the UK.
Unless you are a public employer the directive does not yet affect you, as it has not yet been incorporated into UK law. However, the standards it sets may currently be used as benchmarks of good practice in, for example, claims by employees that they have suffered stress or ill-health, or because of a failure to take adequate steps to protect them. Draft regulations should be published shortly and the new Labour government is keen that they should be implemented as part of UK law as soon as is practicable.
When the provisions bite, you will have to comply, although there will probably be exemptions for the four million self-employed in this country.
What is probably of greater concern for smaller businesses could be the introduction of minimum levels of annual leave, because a minimum for junior staff could 'knock on' to higher leave entitlements for senior staff. And in the future, there may well be more regulation of working hours and patterns to protect the health and safety of workers. In fact, there is currently an EU White Paper proposing that the exceptions be tightened up. So the message is Take Great Care.