By Stan Crooke
Workers in the UK work the longest hours in Europe. Nearly four million workers in the UK regularly work over 48 hours a week — 700,000 more than a decade ago.
Sixteen per cent of UK workers now work over 60 hours a week, compared to 12% in 2000.
Thirteen percent of women workers in the UK now work more than 60 hours a week, compared with 6.5% in 2000. And this figure takes no account of unpaid work in the home.
The proportion of the UK workforce working over 48 hours a week is four times higher than the EU average, and sixteen times higher than the proportion of the Dutch workforce working over 48 hours a week.
Workers who put in long hours do not do so voluntarily. They are put under pressure by their employer to work the extra hours. Or they have to put in long hours in order to make ends meet.
Nearly two thirds of workers who regularly work more than 48 hours a week have not given their agreement to opt out of the European Union (EU) Working Time Directive (which limits working hours to an average of 48 hours per week).
One in three of those workers who have signed an opt-out from the EU Working Time Directive were given no choice about signing away their rights and were pressurised into doing so by their employer.
Sixty one percent of long-hours-workers in the UK do not receive any overtime pay — amounting to £23 billion pounds of unpaid wages each year. This is the equivalent of an average £4,650 in the annual pay packet of a long-hours worker.
Workers who regularly work more than 48 hours a week are at increased risk of poor health: heart disease, stress-related illnesses, mental illness, diabetes, and bowel disorders. Long-hours working also impacts negatively on family life.
One reason why UK workers put in such long hours — and it is only one reason out of a number of factors — is that they do not even enjoy the limited protection of the EU Working Time Directive.
The EU Working Time Directive came into force in 1993. Apart from guaranteeing a minimum number of holidays per year, and breaks during working hours, the Directive limited the maximum average working week to 48 hours.
But the then Tory government negotiated an “opt-out” for the UK, meaning that there was no time-limit on the working week. Having negotiated the opt-out, the Tories then refused to implement the Working Time Directive itself!
After Labour came to power in 1997, they implemented the Working Time Directive — but maintained the opt-out for the maximum working week.
In May of this year the European Parliament voted by 378 to 262 to scrap, over a period of three years, the “right” of EU member states to allow an opt-out from the EU Working Time Directive. Although some Labour MEPs backed the proposal, Blair’s response was to pledge that the UK government would prevent abolition of the opt-out.
Blair has denounced the European Parliament’s vote as “wrong” and “completely misguided”. He pledged the government had “no intention” of allowing abolition of the opt-out” on the grounds that “we simply cannot afford to give up our flexibility.”
A meeting of the EU Employment and Social Affairs Council recently voted, at the initiative of UK Employment Minister Alan Johnson, not to endorse the decision of the EU Parliament to scrap the opt-out. For the time being at least, this prevents the proposal to abolish the opt-out from being referred back to the European Parliament for a second reading.
Abolition of the UK opt-out would not, by any stretch of the imagination, put an end to the blight of long-hours-working. Even the TUC — for whom implementation of the Working Time Directive is an easy alternative to a rank-and-file campaign for a shorter working week — stresses that it is only a modest step in the right direction.
The EU Working Time Directive limits the average working week to 48 hours — that works out at a six-day working week of eight hours a day! While millions of people throughout Europe cannot find work, the European Parliament thinks that a maximum average working week of 48 hours is the best reform that workers can expect.
The British Chambers of Commerce has congratulated the government for “standing firm” on the opt out and welcomed the government’s position as “good news for business and for Europe’s future prosperity.” A Tory Euro-spokesperson dismissed opponents of the opt-out as “politicians nostalgic for a bygone age.”
Trade unions should be stepping up the pressure on the government to scrap the UK opt-out. Unions should demand of Labour MPs in constituencies with which a union has a “constituency agreement” (i.e. provides financial support) that they support abolition of the opt-out — or face cancellation of the constituency agreement.
Unions must also ensure that the length of time over which the average working week is calculated under the Working Time Directive is not increased from the current 17 weeks. One proposal on the table — backed by the TUC as a “sensible” compromise – is that the average working week will be calculated over a year, rather than the current 17 week period.