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Last Updated: Monday, 30 May, 2005, 11:26 GMT 12:26 UK
TUC attacks working hours 'myths'
Call centre workers
Many in Britain are working long hours
The TUC has launched an attack on the "myths" which it says surround the UK's opt-out on EU working hours rules.

Its report argues that Britain's long hours culture is bad for workers' health, and harming productivity.

This week the government will try to thwart a move by the European Parliament to end Britain's opt-out over the maximum 48-hour working week.

The TUC estimates 16% of the UK labour force - some 3.9m people - work more than 48 hours per week.

Tony Blair has said he wants to maintain British competitiveness.

The TUC says investigations have shown that regularly working more than 48 hours a week increases the risk of a range of illnesses, from heart disease to mental illness.

Graph showing average working hours

It disputes employers' claims that workers are keen to do large amounts of overtime. In fact, says the report, most of the extra hours are unpaid.

The TUC says the government's own research shows that two-thirds of workers putting in more than 48 hours a week have not signed an opt-out from the working time directive, which they are required to do by law.

The TUC also argues that excessive hours undermine economic performance. Despite working longer than most other EU members, Britain ranks only tenth in terms of productivity per hour.

Trade unions are stepping up their lobbying effort ahead of a meeting of EU employment ministers later this week.

Full-time workers in the UK work for an average of 44 hours, compared with about 40 hours in the 14 other longstanding EU member states, according go the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC).

European trends

The ETUC says around two-thirds of British workers are unaware of the 48-hour limit.

The UK is not the only country to opt-out from the 48-hour week.

Malta also opts-out, while Luxembourg has a limited opt-out for the hotel and catering industry.

Germany, France and Spain introduced an opt-out for the health sector after a ruling by the European Court of Justice, which said that time spent on-call counted as work.

The European Parliament has already voted to end the opt-out. But the move must also be supported by ministers.

The government says it is confident that will not happen.

The Department of Trade and Industry estimated that, in spring 2003, 20.4% of full-time employees usually worked more than 48 hours, compared to 23.3% in spring 1998.

Your comments:

I am not forced to work overtime. I don't know anyone who is forced to work overtime. I know a lot of people who choose to do so. I know some lorry drivers who have already had their hours restricted, and who are very angry about the cut in their wages. It may not mean much to a White collar worker, but 100 - 150 a week is a lot of money to some people, myself included. We have the perfect situation right now. A legal limit and a voluntary opt out.
Tony Nicholls, Swindon Wilts

Just be careful what you wish for. I emigrated from the UK to the USA eight years ago, and I've done job interviews here where companies were quite open about expecting an average sixty hour week from their "professional grade" staff - "professional grade" meaning that you only get paid for 40 hours. Then having told you that they expect 50% more work for nothing, those same companies will try to beat you down on your salary requirements. The UK is heading down the same path.
Brian Meadows, Pennsylvania, USA

Forty-eight hours is more than enough time to spend working in a week. If you have to work more hours regularly either to finish your work or to make ends meet then either a) you are working for a company which is under-staffed or b) you are not paid an adequate wage.
Emma, Netherlands, Ex UK

I am currently a scientist in training, and next year will be beginning my PhD. Scientists, particularly those early in their careers, have notoriously long working hours. This is not driven by oppressive supervisors and lab leaders, but rather by necessity of the experiments. Similar problems exist in teaching and healthcare. Not only should I have the right to be a workaholic if I so wish, but long hours are part and parcel with many jobs.
James, Cambridge, UK

The whole business of working hours opt-outs is part of the same nonsensical belief that European economies can compete with Asian economies. If British employees worked 100 hours a week at 1 per hour, they still could not compete with the likes of China who have a minimum wage of 16p per hour. In addition, these Asian governments do not have the same fixed overheads as European governments such as healthcare, benefits systems and armies abroad. They do not need to tax the population as we do, therefore the employee has no requirement for higher wages. How can Europe compete when the Asian economies are not playing in the same league?
Paul Mullery, Walsall, West Midlands

It is a welcome change for the government to be acting on behalf of the people. Everybody should have the choice to work whatever hours they like. The TUC is falling into the "nanny state" trap that the government normally seems to favour. You will find that most people, only 30 years ago, needed to work two jobs just to make ends meet. Nowadays, people can work overtime, which is not compulsory, to pay for extras or holidays (the leisure industry, caravanning and camping, is booming in Britain). This not only improves our day to day living, it also improves our economy, as many areas would not survive without tourism (re; recent foot and mouth). It also shows that people are still taking time, or overtime, out to relax and spend time with their families.
S Keeton, Merseyside, England

I routinely have to work 45-50 weeks, though I only get paid for a 37hr week. I was recently asked to sign a waiver form by my employer, but refused. I have no wish to work the kind of hours I do, however, the culture that my employer has presented to all employees is that if you are unwilling to work long hours then you are not a team player. There have even been quite open statements and employee literature that suggest that maybe you are working for the wrong company if you don't want to work extra, unpaid hours. I would estimate that my company would need to increase its workforce in my area by some 15% or so if everyone who works stupid hours were to reduce to their contractual hours.
Glenn Davis, Dartford, Kent

I would love to see an end to the opt-out clause. By continuing to work longer, generally unpaid, hours, we are simply perpetuating the myth that all is well in the workplace. Employers will not employ the additional resources required if we continue as we do. Many workplaces are severely under-resourced these days placing additional pressure on the employees. However, at what cost? Not only will health eventually suffer, but family life will do also. It is time our largest companies placed a little more emphasis on staff welfare, and slightly less on profit.
Karen Berry, Oldham, England

It's strange, when I was at school, back in the 60s, I was taught that in the future everyone would work a short week, thanks to "progress". And we would have had a lot of paid leisure time in which to develop ourselves intellectually, artistically etc. It was certainly understood that working more than 40 hours per week was harmful in many ways, both physically and psychologically... Are we now going backwards as a society?
Michael P, Manchester, UK

Only 48 hours a week! Employment legislation and red-tape is so biased against small companies growing by employing people, that there is rise in self-employed single person companies - such as myself (and not through choice but redundancy) working as independent consultants. Flexible, and infinitely insecure with no rights. Such working time legislation is meaningless for the self employed, (anything less than 65 hour and I think I've had a quiet week). The more such legislation and red-tape that exists, the less "employed" people there will be, and he less meaningful the legislation. Ironic!
Oliver Wright, Oxfordshire, UK

It says more for our lack of efficiency and productivity that the economy needs us to work long hours just to be competitive in the global market. Britain is slipping down the world rankings in just about everything.
Matthew Raitt, Portsmouth, England

Individuals must have the freedom to be able to work for as long as they like. One size does not fit all - no evidence is put forward to justify that 48 hours is appropriate across all sectors. Having a limit to protect those who do not want to work more than 48 hours is important but preventing people working longer is wrong. Many of our business success stories have been built on the back of hard work. The rest of the world will be laughing all the way to the bank.
Chris Chalk, Tonbridge Kent

There needs to be a better balance between work and home life, which cannot be addressed on an hours per week basis. It is bad for workers' health if they cannot earn enough to live and pay their bills, which will certainly happen if hours are restricted. Health care and road transport will be severely affected - where are the extra workers to be found to cover all the work? Choice must be left with the individual workers.
Susan Potter, Plymouth, England

UK 'to keep EU work time opt-out'
12 May 05 |  UK Politics
Q&A: Working Time opt-out
11 May 05 |  Europe

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