The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has found that external training required by an employer outside normal working hours can be categorised as “working time” under the Working Time Directive. The claimant, an employee, was required to physically attend training at an external location determined by the employer and was subject to the employer’s instructions. The ECJ pointed out that the only possible alternative categorisation of the training was as a rest period, but this would undermine the claimant’s right to sufficient rest.
This case concerned a referral to the ECJ by the Court of Appeal of Iaşi in Romania. The claimant in this case worked as a firefighter for the local emergency services. As part of his role, the claimant was legally required to undertake vocational training. The claimant, at his employer’s request, completed 160 hours of training at the premises of an external training provider during March and April 2017.
He brought a claim seeking an order that 124 hours of the training be paid to him as overtime, as they were completed outside his normal working hours. After his claim was dismissed, he appealed to the Court of Appeal, which referred the question to the ECJ.
The question raised
The Court of Appeal noted in its referral that it is not for the ECJ to decide questions of remuneration, as this is a matter of national law. However, the outcome of the dispute would be determined by the question of whether the training is classified as working time or a rest period.
Article 2(1) of Directive 2003/88/EC (the Working Time Directive or WTD) states that “working time” means any period during which a worker is working, at the employer’s disposal and carrying out his activity or duties, in accordance with national laws and/or practice. “Working time” and “rest period” are mutually exclusive concepts under the WTD, and therefore any time spent in vocational training must be classed as one or the other. The court specifically noted that the training in question took place outside normal working hours, at the premises of the training services provider, away from his place of work, and without performing any of his service duties.
The ECJ found that the time the claimant had spent in training was indeed categorised as working time. The fact that the training requirement arose from national law had no impact here as the claimant was already employed when the need for training arose, and the employer was under an obligation to require the claimant to attend the training. The fact that the training took place outside the claimant’s normal working hours was also disregarded as the WTD does not draw such a distinction.
The ECJ also considered it irrelevant that the training took place outside the worker’s usual place of work. Instead, what was important was that the claimant was required to be physically present at a place determined by the employer. Nor was it decisive that the activity carried out by the claimant was different to his usual work activity, as he was still subject to the employer’s instructions in undertaking the training.
In reaching its decision, the ECJ emphasised that the purpose of the WTD was to improve the living and working conditions of workers by ensuring an entitlement to a minimum period of rest. It noted that the right to sufficient rest is a fundamental right laid out in the EU’s Charter. There is no intermediate category between “working time” and “rest periods” in the WTD, because rest is defined negatively as time that is not working time. Any interpretation that did not count this training as “working time” would allow an employer to impose training obligations on the employee outside his working hours to the detriment of his right to sufficient rest.
This decision falls after the end of the Brexit “transition period” and is therefore not binding in the UK. However, UK courts and tribunals may still refer to ECJ decisions if relevant to a dispute before them. This decision is therefore still likely to be important in the UK as our Working Time Regulations are based on and, in most respects, closely follow the WTD.
However, in this situation the decision is of particular interest because it conflicts with the definition of “working time” in the UK’s Working Time Regulations 1998, which excludes training provided on a course by an educational institution or a person whose main business is the provision of training, as was the case here. If a similar question comes before a UK court, it will be interesting to see how the court grapples with this conflict. In the meantime, employers may wish to take a cautious approach to mandatory vocational training, to avoid potentially costly disputes over payment and rest periods by their workers.