Firms accused of leaning on their employees to opt out of hours limit

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The Independent Online

Hundreds of thousands of British employees are giving up their rights to a strict limit on working hours granted to them under European law, the results of a study published yesterday suggest.

Workers in nearly half of UK companies had opted out of the Working Time Directive, research for the Confederation of British Industry showed. For larger businesses, the proportion reached 70 per cent.

The massive "opt-out'' was seen as fresh evidence of Britain's long-hours culture. A senior union leader accused companies of "leaning on'' workers to give up their rights. Roger Lyons, leader of the MSF white-collar and manufacturing union, said the loophole negotiated by the last Conservative government meant that the European law was "next to useless".

He added: "We have long argued that the opt-out would inevitably mean that British employers would ignore the health of their workers.''

He said a recent MSF survey showed that more than eight out of 10 workers who signed away their rights had felt coerced by their employers. Mr Lyons said: "We need a working-time directive with teeth. This shows that allowing employers a voluntary code on social measures ­ as the CBI wants ­ means workers' employment conditions will not improve. Employers will not adopt the measures unless they are forced to.''

Susan Anderson, director of human resources policy at the CBI, argued that many workers were keen to opt out because they wanted to work overtime. She pointed out that it was unlawful for companies to put any pressure on their employees and that the system would be reviewed by the European Council of Ministers in 2003. Ms Anderson insisted the findings of the survey did not mean that Britain was "the bad man of Europe''.

Staff in increasingly labour-intensive jops, such as telephone call centres, are particularly susceptible to the long-hours culture in Britain.

Mark Edelsten, of the consultants William Mercer, said British employees were now working an average three hours a week longer than they did 10 years ago. He said Britain had a "unique" approach to industrial relations. Although European laws applied to Britain it was also influenced by the more individualistic approach of the United States.

The survey found that the British workforce felt increasingly secure, but that skill shortages had become "dramatically worse''.

Last year, some 27 per cent of the 670 firms in the survey said their employees felt more secure, while 21 per cent reported that they felt less so. That is a positive balance of six points compared with minus 15 points in 1999 and minus 25 points in the previous year.

About 39 per cent of companies said skill shortages had a serious impact on their competitiveness, compared with 23 per cent in 1999 and 14 per cent in 1998. But the CBI found that employers had responded by offering staff more training, rather than poaching other firms' employees, a policy that would force up wages.

One in five British workers was illiterate and innumerate and Ms Anderson said the problems were being "stored up''. Higher educational standards had to be achieved.

The report, the fourth annual survey of the labour market by the CBI, found that more companies were offering their staff a chance to achieve a balance between work and home through flexible working arrangements. Four out of five offered part-time working, almost half gave parental leave and 17 per cent agreed to career breaks.