The European Court of Justice is to rule on an important test case involving the hours worked by marine pilots on the Humber estuary.

The case was referred to the European Court of Justice by the Employment Appeal Tribunal after Associated British Ports appealed against a decision by an Employment Tribunal in Hull last year which held that pilots working on the Humber estuary were wrongly being denied sufficient rest periods between shifts.

Under the Working Time Regulations 1998, workers must be allowed a rest break of at least 20 minutes once their daily working time exceeds six hours (Rest Break) and must also be permitted to have a rest break of at least 11 hours in every 24 hour period (Daily Rest). However, the Regulations also grant certain exceptions for specific circumstances and industries.

All ships over 60 metres in length require a pilot when entering or leaving the Humber estuary and there are around 30,000 shipping movements a year in the estuary. Every couple of weeks, there is a particularly busy period coinciding with high tides and, at these times, Humber pilots are regularly asked to work long hours with short breaks.

Both sides accepted at the Tribunal that pilots were sometimes required to work longer hours than were permitted under the Regulations. However, Associated British Ports argued that the work of marine pilots involved the need for continuity of service and therefore sought to rely on one of the exceptions to the general rule regarding working hours.

The Tribunal held that Associated British Ports were entitled to rely on this particular exception as far as Rest breaks were concerned, but not in relation to Daily Rest. Associated British Ports subsequently appealed this decision to the Employment Appeal Tribunal, which felt unable to resolve this matter without first seeking guidance from the European Court of Justice since this involved consideration of European law.

Bridge McFarland Partner and employment law specialist, Richard Parnell, said:

“While we accept that the demand for the services of marine pilots fluctuates from week to week and day to day, we do not think it is acceptable to regularly require pilots to work such long hours with inadequate rest breaks.

“As well as the effect on the pilots and their family lives, there is, of course, the health and safety issue of asking tired individuals to perform the stressful job of bringing these enormous and valuable ships in and out of port. We now await the opinion of the European Court of Justice in this important test case before this matter comes back before the Employment Appeal Tribunal for a final ruling.”