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Tuesday, September 14, 1999 Published at 11:12 GMT 12:12 UK

Should Europeans be told how long to work?

"How do you implement a 35-hour week with people with very flexible working hours.
Esther Leneman, London correspondent of the French radio station Europe-1

"I think you have to have some legislation, if only because you have to protect the weakest among the workforce.
Annette Groth of the Norwegian broadcaster NRK

Click here to listen to both sides of the debate
Listen to our debate hosted by Mark Reid. Do you agree with the views of our contributors?

Background ¦ Your reaction ¦ Listen to the debate

The Background:

Should Europeans be told how long a working week should be?

Talking Point - Europewide
The European Union thinks so and that's why the EU has a Working Time Directive which says that people must not work more than forty-eight hours a week.

The French Socialist government thinks people should be told how long - or how little - to work.

The thirty-five hour week legislation in France is taking hold and this week the car industry implements the law.

Would you rather be in control of the hours you spend at work? Can one standard be set for all professions? Do you think a fixed working week would prevent people working themselves into the ground?

Joining Mark Reid for the Europewide debate are Esther Leneman, London correspondent of the French radio station Europe-1, and Annette Groth of the Norwegian broadcaster NRK.

Background ¦ Your reaction ¦ Listen to the debate

Your Reaction:

I think that it's ridiculous that certain politicians are arguing against a forty-eight hour week for those of us who don't want to work more than, say, ten hours a day! After all, the law doesn't currently prohibit people from working more if they don't want to, it simply means that you don't have to if you don't want to.
Neil, UK

This message board is about European affairs. Then why is it dominated by Americans telling us that we should work like dogs? Greece has liberal labour laws and we all enjoy it. Everything is closed on Sundays, and we all get guaranteed vacations. Most of the other countries on the continent are the same. Americans and some Brits may claim that they enjoy working more. I don't think so. Because every summer, millions of Brits and Americans come to our country, let loose, and go crazy with their new-found freedom. Then, when their holiday is over, they return home and work like dogs.
Since the late 19th century, people throughout the world have fought for the 40-hour work week. Now, the work week is growing again. This only brings the world a step back. I am a firm believer of the 40-hour working week. The EU should reduce the maximum required working week for all of us to 40 hours, not 48. 48 hours is ridiculously high.
AG, Greece

As usual, this debate is being carried out without concern for the actual facts of the propositions involved. Many of your correspondents are working on the principle that, say, the French thirty-five hour week is going to make overtime illegal or something. In fact, the new legislation is based upon the principle of thirty-five statutory hours, the thirty-sixth hour onwards becoming overtime at overtime rates.
Added to the fact that the thirty-five hour week is being integrated into negotiations over several years between employer organisations and unions with the compensatory factor of employees agreeing to greater flexibility (e.g. annualising work-time so as in fact to work 50 hours a week when necessary at peak periods and stay at home a lot during other weeks, for a stable wage packet) the presentation of work-time limitation as can be seen in the comments in this talking point is a gross caricature.
Matthew Smith, France

It's really annoying to read American comments on how lazy Europeans want to be. Maybe they should travel outside their country and see the long hours waiters, doctors etc. are forced to work away from their families. They can keep their deregulated markets to themselves. Just don't complain that yours is a country of bachelors and divorcees with no families or close friends. As for British intolerance of the EU, there is always another choice. You can get out of it now.
Karim Moukaddem, Spain

Unless we get around to giving and accepting that people need more leisure time the employment situation will only get worse. I know it is difficult for people with flexible working hours, such as doctors and journalists, but we must make a start somewhere or the consequences in the long term could be very dire.
D Tyler, England

TO Alan Alameda of the USA (who said "NO WORK, NO PROSPARITY, NO PROSPARITY, NO WORK") - there is more to attainment than long hours. Good education helps people to be more efficient with their time and also helps them to spell PROSPERITY!
Alister McClure, UK

When we stop being dictated to by a non-democratic, non-representative, non-elected, body that answers to no-one then these issues will be discussed and voted on by the people that are effected - Europeans. Dismantle The European Commission now and hand all power to the European Parliament.
Graeme, England

In this column we have a fair cross-section of the typical knee-jerk reactions to anything coming out of the European Union. The Directive does not, as your Background remarks suggest, say that people must not work more than 48 hours. It says people should not be forced to work more than 48 hours against their will by employers if they do not wish to do so. I am sure the misleading description of the Directive on your part is intentional in order to elicit this kind of reaction.
Some of your readers are fortunately a lot wiser about EU affairs and know what the real purpose of the Directive is, namely to prevent exploitation of those who are not in a position to help themselves. If only reporting of EU affairs were less loaded in the UK.
As an Englishman living in Belgium, I am often ashamed when I read the UK press. The continental countries have had a higher standard of living than Britain ever since the war, despite the often cited, so-called over-regulation. Britons should concentrate more on what they really want, i.e. to be part of this great enterprise or not. At the end of the day, I think they know where their bread is buttered and common sense will prevail.
John Jones, Belgium

No, we should not be dictated to by other powers, whether they follow the same rule or not. No doubt, though, that the British government will bend over backwards to accommodate the regulations while the rest of Europe totally ignores them, as usual!
John Churchman, UK/Germany

The question is quite easily answered; NO WORK, NO PROSPARITY, NO PROSPARITY, NO WORK.
Alan Alameda, USA

The rules may have changed since I last looked at them, but I was under the impression that for an employer to have broken the law as regards the 48 hour week, he/she must have forced an employee to have worked for more than 48 hours per week on average over a 3 month period. And any complaint about this must come from the employee, so this surely leaves it open for willing workers to continue to work as many hours as they choose. There is no need for the paranoia shown by many of the writers here - no-one in Europe is 'out to get us' and there is no hidden agenda in the Working Time Directive!
Dee, N Ireland

The intention of the working time directive is to protect employees from exploitation by employers. Those employees wishing to work in excess of the 48 hours can agree to do so, but with the introduction of this legislation this is now done through choice rather than force.
Helen Buckley, England

I suppose Europe will start taking siestas everyday as well too. There is a reason why countries like those in Latin America have such horrible standards of living. The luxuries that much of Europe, North America and other countries enjoy do not come for free. If Europe decides to become as lazy as some 3rd world countries are, then they can expect to have the same quality of living. I enjoy not worrying if the food I eat is going to kill me, I enjoy living without wide spread starvation and famine, and I enjoy drinking clean water. These luxuries only come from a society that is willing to work hard to achieve such things. You can complain about the over worked American all you want, but I am one American who is happy to work overtime to live here.
Jordan, USA

Regulate the number of working hours? Are they crazy? If we couldn't hang around the office for 14 hours a day, how would we prove our worth to the boss? We would have to demonstrate our worth through productivity and efficiency. Besides long hours are good for the economy, it is well known that stressed people are great shoppers who do not question the prices or standard of service. Also shorter hours would lead to all sorts of consequences such as family meals a la the Oxo family, we would be dragged before the WTO by the US on behalf of the fast food industry.
Tom, Australia

More hysterical Europhobic discussion from a nation conditioned to fear employee or social legislation aimed solely at improving quality of life. The Working Time Directive does not limit the hours people may work. It limits the hours that employers may require people to work. If people want to work long hours this Directive does not prevent them from doing so. Ask any NHS junior Doctor or Nurse. The question should be 'Should employers be able to demand unlimited hours from their staff', to which the answer is surely 'no'.
Andrew (ex pat), Belgium

Europe laughed at us in the 60s when our labour force did not want to work. Now we are willing to work every hour god sends, they are scared they are going to lose some business.
Frank, England

I really wish Europe could keep their laws and regulations to themselves. They have already caused a lot of damage to several sensitive industries in this country. I find it mad enough they charge our national airline 4 for their travel agents bonus practises, while each of the national carriers on the continent does exactly the same, if not worse.
If the EC now decides what hours we can and can't work, I'll be "out of here". I just wish France, Germany and the rest of them could look at their own problems and laws before telling others what to do.
Alan Marchal, United Kingdom

Some of us actually enjoy working long hours. The self-employed aren't told how long to work and neither should anyone else. Let's get everyone working at the rates the Japanese used to and get productivity right up.
Tom, UK

How can we be expected to spend most of our lives somewhere we don't want to be? We should decide how many hours we work individually, and not fall below the poverty line if that amount is less than 40 hours.
Richard Moore, UK

The fact that the U.K and U.S have relatively liberal employment laws and single digit unemployment rates is not coincidental. The 35-hour work week is the most absurd economic idea to come from the continent of Europe since Karl Marx put pen on paper.
J Forbes, USA

Yes. This would prevent employees been exploited, by inefficient organisations. The key to productivity is not to work harder, but smarter. Organisations who are unable to sustain a competitive advantage by being smart, continue to do the same thing, by getting their employees to sweat it out. The U.S. example of high productivity has its costs.
Similarly, employees also must be given the option of working extra hours, should it be needed due to personal economic reasons. In today's business world, where costs have to be kept to a minimum for competitive reasons, its observed wages continue to be under pressure. In this context employees have to resort to working longer hours to settle bills.
Hence what is required is legislation to limit working hours, yet provide the opportunity for employees to opt for extra hours should it be required.
Anton Norbert, Canada.

Short answer: No. First demonstrate the ability to mind one's own affairs before taking decisions away from people. It should be decided on country by country basis.

Simplistically, it is cheaper to employ a smaller number of workaholics than a larger number of people who want other things in their life than work. However, the costs of the side effects of such attitudes, such as unemployment, stress related illness, relationship and social breakdown are greater in the long run. This isn't about telling people what to do so much as protecting people and society.
I find it frightening that there are a lot of people with a lot of money, and hence a lot of power, who must be some of the least informed and most ignorant members of society, as they lead such narrow, work obsessed lives.
C Rhode, UK

The Europeans can do what the hell they like. I will work as long and as hard as I want to and will not listen to the moaning from the nanny state supported. All in agreement raise the appropriate two fingers towards Europe.
Andy Trigg, England

Personally, I do not feel that governments should have any say whatsoever in the amount of my labour I sell, nor the price I negotiate for it. We operate in a global marketplace, and if someone wants to buy at a price I'm prepared to sell at, i should have the right to sell as much as I want at that price.
Government claims to "protecting the workers against exploitation" are transparent, specially when you realise that the UK government has obtained an opt-out from the working-time directive for its' own employees! Look at the hours junior doctors work, for example, then ask how the UK Government has the cheek to stop *me* working more than 48 hours a week.
Pete Morgan-Lucas, UK

Yes, Europeans should work harder if they want to succeed competing against Japanese and Americans in the new millennium
Deddy Saputra, Indonesia

If the British Government wishes to tell me how long I should work, let them do it openly. Then I can take their decision into account at the next General Election. I resent being told what to do by a group of people over whom I have no democratic control.
David, England

Whilst it is right that workers should not be exploited, many companies have to work more than normal hours. Design Companies, model-makers and fashion designers have to meet deadlines. If the job is not finished on time it is worthless. It must also be remembered that, in this country we produce less per worker, for various reasons, than in say Germany or France, but we are still very competitive because of our flexibility. Without this flexibility we would be in a very poor state. Which is probably what the other Euro countries want. The sooner we have the sense to get out of Europe the better.
Ron Banks, UK

The debate should not be about being told how long to work but how short a time we should need to work to earn a good living for the sake of others. Let's share so there is less unemployment
Matthew Boyles, England

It's a bit pointless for Europe to implement a measure like this in isolation, since it will only make it less competitive against the rest of the World. Would it not be better to also impose a punitive import tariff on any product from a country which does not have similar legislation? This would have the double benefit of levelling the playing field, and imposing at least a bit of the European social model on less developed countries. Or are we all to end up being Japanese?
Graham Bell, Brazil

My answer is no. Whilst, on the face of it, this a measure which seems very appealing it is, in fact, yet another 'regulation' that is, in truth, designed to prevent small companies and businesses competing with large corporations. Small companies may require more flexibility in their staff in order to grow or even survive and this measure would severely curtail that flexibility.
Big multi-nationals have the resources available to hire huge numbers of people and rotate them as appropriate so they can take restrictions like this in their stride. It wouldn't surprise me if the big corporations, who work hand-in-hand with governments, have already given their 'nod' to this or, possibly, even suggested it in the first place.
Small traders and businesses are already over-encumbered with red tape and restrictions that stifle growth and innovation: they do not need more
David J.K. Carr, England

I don't think anyone should be complaining about statutory work hours. They should try living in the US, where, as we all know, people hardly take holidays and have dodgy social lives. I understand that nobody likes to be told what to do, but oh, to be told that we should all work less!
Lucie H, USA, originally UK

Moan, moan, and moan. I think the only thing people in the UK can do is moan. Work is just that work. Paying the bills, putting a roof over your head and feeding the family are the most important things a person can do. Instead all we hear is I should not have to work hard or work to long. Thank God I left the UK for a better life in the US where I can work hard and be appreciated for it with out listening the bleating moaning lazy Brits who want a nanny state.
Jason, UK

For well over a decade , my husband has been working for Royal Mail . Although the weekly wage is better than most , for many years he has been supplementing this by WILLINGLY working overtime which has doubled his income . Now the EU want to force him to cut back his hours which will have a catastrophic effect on his income . Can anyone tell me how we will be able to pay our bills when the amount of money we have coming in is cut by half ? Don't bother suggesting that I go out to work as I have to care for our four children , two of whom are disabled .
Sarah Scott, UK

I think there should be legislation to protect people. Those who do want to work longer hours for economic reasons should be allowed to do so keeping in mind the safety for the public and the worker. Where there is no legislation, exploitation of the worker is rampant. I have seen it all over the world, especially in the USA. To bring up our children properly we need to be a family. To be a family we need to spend time together. That means regulated and limited hours away from home!
Dr H Bhogal, UK/USA

I wish I could even get to work as little as 40 hours a week. So many of my friends here in the states are working two or three part time jobs. It's very hard to get out of being stuck in the service industry. The gap between the wealthy and everybody else is huge and getting bigger. CEO's make over 400 times as much as the average workers.
Evan Henshaw-Plath, USA

I would not like a government that knows what`s good for me. I prefer to make my own decisions. We are already overregulated.
Alfred H. Kayser, Germany

Of course Europe should set the amount of hours that we work otherwise we would not be playing on a level playing field when it came to costs and therefore the Single Market would no longer be a single market. It is yet another attempt by British management to push the blame for their own failures on others i.e. Europe. Business in Germany, France, Spain et al seem to make a huge amount of money for their shareholders with these rules so why can't we? In fact since France reduced working hours to 35 hours a week not only has unemployment gone down but investment has gone up. Much evidence is available that shows that working long hours is damaging for health and relationships and that about one fifth of the people who have opted out of the Working Time Regulations have done so under unfair pressure form their employers.
Simon Atkinson, UK

Restrictions on working time were introduced to protect the economically vulnerable against exploitation by employers. This rationale still applies. In recent years such restrictions have come to justify another need as well, namely that of redistributing paid employment which to some extent has become a scarce commodity. So, yes, it is right to set limits on the number of hours worked per week. As to flexible working hours, it is a matter of working out the practicalities.
Peter, Netherlands

I think it would put a lot of hardship on smaller companies who rely on staff putting in a lot of hours close to deadlines to remain competitive. Employees are usually rewarded in kind for that effort (either money or holidays).
Matt, Ireland

Of course Europe should set the amount of hours that we work otherwise we would not be playing on a level playing field when it came to costs and therefore the Single Market would no longer be a single market. It is yet another attempt by British management to push the blame for their own failures on others i.e. Europe. Business in Germany, France, Spain et al seem to make a huge amount of money for their shareholders with these rules so why can't we? In fact since France reduced working hours to 35 hours a week not only has unemployment gone down but investment has gone up.
Much evidence is available that shows that working long hours is damaging for health and relationships and that about one fifth of the people who have opted out of the Working Time Regulations have done so under unfair pressure form their employers.
Simon Atkinson, UK

Whilst I agree that how long a week you work should really be freely negotiated between you and your employer, under our current system, that isn't what happens. People in Britain are being thrown out of their jobs for declining to work on a Sunday, despite legislation supposedly protecting their right to choose. There is also evidence to suggest that as many as one-fifth of those who sign opt-out papers for the working time directive are not doing so by choice, but because they are put in fear of losing their jobs if they do not.
I have NOT opted out, and I feel that anyone requiring their employees to work more than nine and a half hours every day (48 divided by 5 = 9.6) is exploiting their workforce. At a time when back to basics pundits are bemoaning the lack of family values and parental responsibility, it's interesting to see those same people opposing measures which might protect a person's right to a reasonable family life. The old saw remains true; on their death bed, no one says "I wish I'd spent more time at the office..."
Nicholas Palmer, UK

Isn't your question rather loaded? Might it not be more appropriate to enquire if people should be forced to work longer hours than a normal working week?
Robert Jorgensen, Cyprus

A single standard for all professions makes no sense. If I want to work more hours and earn more money, that is my prerogative. However, it is good to give workers the right to not work huge numbers of hours.
John, UK

Whilst I would prefer national or regional governments to legislate on this sort of thing if they won't then Europe should. With all of today's technology producing wealth people should have to work much less but they don't. Some employers would rather exploit people by working them harder and harder including longer hours, or pay so little per hour that it is necessary for employees to work excessive hours just to make ends meet. If we are to have any kind of community and society worth having then people should be working less. 35 hours is quite long enough.
Barry Tregear, England

If people want to work more than 48 hours per week, they're more than free to do so. However, it is important that there is protection against people being required to work excessive hours.
The directive (as far as I am aware) does not limit people's choice, it only helps to stop employers from exploiting their staff.
Dr Duncan Campbell, UK

People are working ridiculous hours as it is and the excessive hours we work causes additional stress. A fixed amount of hours per week would suit some people, but we have to remember those others who rely on the extra overtime which increases their weekly/monthly pay packet. These would be the people who would suffer the most if the working time was fixed. What would happen at Christmas and Bank holidays then?
Jason, UK

Isn't it about time we told the EU to stop interfering in our own affairs! Perhaps they should focus on cleaning up corruption within the commission instead, and just leave us alone.
Andrew, UK

Should Europeans be told how long to work?

Final Votes:


Yes: 37% No: 63%

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