By a judgment rendered on 24 January 2012 the CJEU has once again reiterated the fundamental importance of paid annual leave, as laid down by the Working Time Directive (2003/88/EC). In C-282/10 Maribel Dominguez v Centre informatique du Centre Ouest Atlantique, a case concerning the compatibility of French employment legislation with the WTD, the Court held that the WTD “…must be interpreted as precluding Member States from unilaterally limiting the entitlement to paid annual leave conferred on all workers by applying a precondition which has the effect of preventing certain workers from benefiting from it…” (para 17).
The French legislation under consideration provided that a worker is only entitled to paid annual leave if s/he has worked for a minimum period of time during the reference period. The reference period is normally one year, and the stipulated ‘qualifying periods’ were stated as being: (a) until February 2008, one month; and (b) thereafter, ten days.
The CJEU held that whilst Member States are entitled to lay down certain conditions for the exercise and implementation of the right to paid annual leave, it is not acceptable to “exclude the very existence of a right expressly granted to all workers” (para 19).
The Court also commented that the relevant provisions of the WTD were unconditional and sufficiently precise that they had ‘direct effect’ – i.e. individual workers are entitled to rely upon them against Member States / emanations of the State in domestic Courts; and any conflicting piece of national legislation would fall to be disapplied. So far as claims by workers against private employers are concerned, the Court went on to summarise well-established principles of European law, observing that a party injured as a result of domestic law not conforming to European law may nevertheless obtain compensation for the loss sustained as a result of that non-conformity (applying Francovich and Others).
Finally, the CJEU reiterated that the WTD lays down minimum period of protection for workers; and accordingly there is nothing to stop Member States affording more generous periods of annual leave which are “more favourable to the protection of workers” (para 48).
The judgment of the CJEU recognises that it is, in principle, acceptable for Member States to impose certain conditions or procedural requirements on the fundamental right to paid annual leave. For example, Reg. 15 of the UK’s Working Time Regulations 1998 obliges workers to give notice of holiday requests; and permits employers to stipulate that workers take their statutory entitlement at certain times of the year. Whilst this plainly pursues a legitimate aim (e.g. protecting the operational interests / needs of the employer) and is compatible with the WTD, applying preconditions to the availability or exercise of that right is not permissible. Given the high level rumblings of discontent (at least from some quarters of the government) regarding the ongoing adverse impact of the WTR on British business, Dominguez provides a timely reminder of the fundamental importance placed by European law on the protection of workers’ health and safety.