European Parliamentarians pose question on the application of the Working Time Directive to voluntary work.

RD – 11/2019

In light of a ruling from the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), MEPs from Renew Europe submitted questions for written answer to the European Commission regarding the applicability of the Matzak judgment.

Marianne Thyssen, the outgoing Commissioner, responded to the questions: 

  • whether the Commission considers that the CJEU’s interpretation could be extended to all cases of (stand-by) voluntary work, and
  • whether the Commission considers that this interpretation sets a precedent which could be detrimental for civil security services.

Her position on the matter was clear. The judgement in the Matzak case reflected the individual circumstances of Mr Matzak. In each situation, it must be determined whether an actual ‘worker’ is involved. The CJEU considered that the particular circumstances of Mr Matzak meant that the conditions to qualify as a ‘worker’ were met. However, this judgment does not imply that each and every voluntary worker in the EU automatically qualifies as a ‘worker’.

Where applicable, the Working Time Directive provides for flexibility and ensures that the safety and health of workers, such as firefighters, is protected. The CJEU ruling does not disadvantage Member States, because there is a certain amount of flexibility in its application; for example, Member States can derogate from the rules on daily and weekly rest periods, provided that equivalent compensatory rest periods are granted. Member States may also introduce derogations which are beneficial to specific groups, such as volunteer services.


The dispute in the Matzak case revolved around whether stand-by time at home should be regarded as working time. Mr Matzak is a voluntary firefighter and also employed in a private company. He took the city of Nivelles to court to claim compensation for his volunteer firefighter services and the time spent on-call at home. The action was brought before the Cour du travail de Bruxelles (Brussels Higher Labour Court), which then decided to ask the CJEU whether stand-by time at home falls within the definition of ‘working time’ as specified within Directive 2003/88/EC and whether the Directive prevents Member State from maintaining or adopting a less restrictive definition of ‘working time’.

Stand-by time at home can be ‘working time’

In its judgment of 21 February 2018 (C-518/15), the CJEU ruled that the stand-by time which a worker spends at home with the duty to respond to an employer’s call within eight minutes is to be regarded as ‘working time’. The CJEU has already dealt with the distinction between working time and stand-by time. In its decision, the European Court of Justice thus confirmed its position on the classification of stand-by time as ‘working time’ with further clarification. The determining factor for classifying stand-by time as ‘working time’ is that a worker is obliged to be physically at a location determined by the employer which allows the worker to be available within the shortest possible time.


The judgement has now clarified that it is irrelevant whether this location is the actual workplace or the worker’s home. The CJEU made their decision based on the fact that the obligation to be physically present at a place determined by the employer and the requirement to be present at the workplace within a short period of time significantly restrict the possibility of carrying out other activities.

Definition of ‘working time’ and ‘worker’ under EU law

The CJEU ruled that, with regard to certain categories, Member States may not derogate from all obligations arising from the Working Time Directive, in particular the concepts of ‘working time’ and ‘rest periods’. In addition, the Directive does not permit Member States to maintain or adopt a less restrictive definition of ‘working time’ than that laid down in the Directive. The same applies to the concept of worker, which has an autonomous meaning under EU law.

More favourable working hours and rest periods for workers may be set

However, Member States are free to lay down provisions in their national legislation which provide for more favourable working time and rest periods for workers than those laid down in the Directive. Furthermore, the Directive does not address the issue of remuneration, since this aspect is outside the competence of the Union. Thus, Member States could specify in their national law that a worker’s remuneration for ‘working time’ differs from that for a ‘rest period’ to such an extent that no remuneration is paid for the latter.

Stand-by time confirmed as working time in the Matzak case

The Court found that Matzak’s ability to pursue his personal and social interests during his stand-by time was restricted. In light of these constraints, Matzak’s situation differs from that of a worker who, during stand-by duty, only needs to make sure that they can be contacted by their employer.