The ECJ's decision originates from a case in Hungary in which a train driver contested his employer, MÁV-START, the Hungarian state railway company, for not granting him a daily rest period of at least 11 hours preceding or following a weekly rest period. The employer claimed that since Hungarian law stipulates a minimum weekly rest period well above that required by the EU Directive, its employee was not in an unfavourable position.
To understand the decision, it is crucial to consider the legal context. The EU Directive mandates 11 hours of daily rest and 24 hours of weekly rest, emphasising that the daily rest is in addition to the weekly rest. On the other hand, Hungarian law provides 11 hours of daily rest and a more generous 48-hour weekly rest.
The ECJ emphasised that the daily and weekly rest rights are autonomous and should be guaranteed separately, because the Directive provides these rights in two different provisions (articles 3 and 5) which pursue different objectives.
While the ECJ ruled that the EU Directive lays down a minimum of 24 hours for a weekly rest period, member states are allowed to be more generous. Nevertheless, the ECJ has made it clear that if a country decides to give more than 24 hours for the weekly rest period, it cannot use that to justify taking away other rights that workers have under the EU Directive. One of these rights is the daily rest period.
The ECJ also ruled that, after work, every employee must immediately benefit from a daily rest period. The weekly rest period can commence once the worker has benefited from the daily rest period.
Looking at a typical work schedule reveals the impact of the ECJ decision on Hungarian regulations. According to the ECJ decision, before the weekly rest period begins (in this example, starting on Saturday at midnight and ending on Sunday at midnight), employers in Hungary must allocate the required 11-hour daily rest period. This means that under the current legal framework in Hungary, the workday would need to end at one o’clock on Friday to meet the stipulated EU law and Hungarian regulations.
How to comply with EU law
Before the publication of the ECJ decision, the Hungarian legislator sought to address the issue by amending the Hungarian Labour Code. The amendment stated, "No daily rest period shall be scheduled if no working time is scheduled for the day immediately after the conclusion of work". In light of the ECJ's ruling, this proposed solution likely does not conform to EU law.
Since the ECJ decision, the Hungarian legislator has yet to propose an alternative, leaving room for legal uncertainty. Presently, over 700 cases on this matter are pending in Hungary, with more than 80 initiated within a month following the ECJ's judgment.
While Hungary would comply with the EU law by providing the minimum rest periods (35 hours altogether), the existing Hungarian regulation, offering 48 hours of weekly rest without the mandatory 11-hour daily rest, falls short of the requirements of the EU Directive.
In conclusion, the ECJ's decision on daily and weekly rest periods necessitates careful consideration and adaptation of labour laws, particularly in Hungary. As this evolving legal landscape is navigated, it is imperative to uphold the rights of workers while ensuring legal certainty to employers by aligning with EU directives.