Working ‘Round The Clock – rest breaks for agriculture workers

Employers can sometimes find themselves entering a very busy business period, with a pressing need for their workers to work longer hours or extra shifts to meet demand. This is particularly true of the agriculture industry, where changing seasons can mean a change in work patterns. However, in order to make a worker forego their usual working pattern, employers should tread carefully so as to ensure they do not breach their obligations towards workers’ rest breaks.

As a starting point, an employer should be aware that workers are entitled to a daily rest period of 11 hours uninterrupted rest per 24-hour period, and a weekly rest period of 24 hours uninterrupted rest in every seven-day period. This is covered by the Working Time Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2016 (WTR). At the employer’s choice, this weekly rest period can instead consist of two uninterrupted 24-hour rests (or 48 hours) in every 14-day period.

However, the WTR does enable the employer, in limited circumstances, to require certain workers to work during rest periods/break periods. This can be done if the circumstances fit within the definition of ‘special cases’. This definition includes (amongst other things):

-“where the worker’s activities involve the need for continuity of service or production, as may be the case, in relation to…agriculture” (Reg 25 (c) (vii)); or

– “where there is a foreseeable surge in activity, as may be the case in relation to…agriculture” (Reg 25 (d) (i)).

The above illustrates the application of the ‘special cases’ for the purposes of business in the agriculture industry.

It must be remembered, that where an employer requires a worker to work through their rest
period, they must, wherever possible, allow the worker to take an equivalent period of compensatory rest, which should equal the length of the interruptions to the period of rest. For example, if a worker is denied the chance to take a day’s rest then the appropriate compensatory rest would be another day’s rest in addition to his weekly entitlement.

The prevailing judicial view is that compensatory rest should be taken as quickly as possible, if not immediately after working, to counteract the effects of working through a rest period, although there is no definitive timescale. If this is not possible due to exceptional circumstances (on objective grounds) the employer must remember to afford the worker such protection as may be appropriate in order to safeguard the worker’s health and safety. This may, for example, include some form of recorded additional assessment of the worker’s continued fitness to work.

While great care has been taken in the preparation of the content of this article, it does not purport to be a comprehensive statement of the relevant law and full professional advice should be taken before any action is taken in reliance on any item covered.