Britons work the longest hours for only average pay

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Economics Editor

The British work the longest hours in Europe, the percentage of the population in the labour force is second only to Denmark, but our living standards are no more than the European Union average.

These findings emerged from UK Business in Europe, the first comprehensive comparison of the UK with other EU countries.

In 1993, the average number of hours usually worked per week by full- time employees was 43.4, 3.9 higher than in Germany and well above above the EU average of 40.2. What is more, it has been rising in the past 10 years, while it has been falling across the EU.

In practice, the differential for hours actually worked was rather less, with UK employees working an hour and a half longer than the EU average of 39.6. The large discrepancy between actual and usual hours worked, said the report, was because a much higher proportion of the labour force is absent from work in the UK because of leave, sickness, injury, training or other reasons.

According to John Philpott, director of the Employment Policy Institute, the discrepancy is a sign of the downside of the flexible labour market. "Some people will try to work longer because they're worried about losing their job. The result is that they fall ill."

Flexible or not, Britain's labour force is proportionally the second largest in the EU, the report shows. In 1993, the labour force was 62 per cent of the population over the age of 15, well above the EU average of 55 per cent and only exceeded by Denmark with 67 per cent.

The principal reason for this is that a higher proportion of women work in the UK than in any other major European country. Higher participation by young workers (aged 15-24) and older workers (50-64) also accounted for the relatively large size of the labour force.

Despite the longer hours and the higher size of the labour force, living standards in the UK are no more than the EU average. Income per head in 1993 was higher than in Sweden, Spain, Ireland, Portugal and Greece, but lower than in countries like Belgium, France, Germany and Denmark.

However, the UK is gradually catching up. Between 1981 and 1993 the British economy grew by 2 per cent a year, just ahead of the EU average of 1.8 per cent. France and Italy also grew at 1.8 per cent a year, while Germany lagged at 1.1. per cent.