The 1998 Working Time Regulations (WTR) state that all workers have the right to paid annual leave every year. In Russell and ors v Transocean International Resources Ltd and ors, the Supreme Court said that there was nothing in the legislation to stop offshore employers insisting that workers take their paid annual leave during periods onshore.

Basic facts

Mr Russell and his colleagues, worked on offshore oil installations. They were rostered to work two weeks offshore in 12-hour shifts, followed by two weeks onshore (called field breaks).

During this time they could do what they wanted, apart from having to attend occasional medical appointments and training courses.

The claimants all argued that they should be entitled to take leave during a period when they were rostered to work offshore. Transocean maintained that the paid annual leave entitlement was discharged by the time spent onshore.

Decisions of lower courts

The Tribunal concluded that field breaks were not to be regarded as annual leave for the purpose of the WTR. It reasoned that leave involved a release from what would otherwise have been an obligation to work.

The EAT disagreed. It said that the time conceded to be available during field breaks was more than enough to cover the entitlement to annual leave. The claimants were free of work obligations.The EAT therefore concluded that offshore employers could say that WTR holiday had to be taken during field breaks.

The Court of Session (the Scottish equivalent of the Court of Appeal) upheld the EAT decision, saying that there was nothing in the directive to suggest that employers might not arrange matters so that annual leave was taken during the school holidays (or industrial equivalent). The claimants appealed.

Supreme Court decision

The Supreme Court held that the purpose of the entitlement to annual leave was to enable the worker to rest and enjoy a period of relaxation and leisure. It said that the directive had met that purpose by laying down the minimum periods of rest that must be given in each cycle.

Although the purpose of annual leave was to enable the worker “to rest and enjoy a period of relaxation and leisure”, as the Court of Justice of the European Union had repeatedly made clear, it had not said that a pre-ordained rest period, when a worker is free from all obligations to the employer, could never constitute annual leave.

The Supreme Court held that “rest period” simply meant “any period” which was not working time. “Any period” included “every such period irrespective of where the worker is at that time and what he is doing, so long as it is a period when he is not working”.

The company was therefore entitled to insist that the workers take their paid annual leave during periods when they were on their field breaks.