Britons are being deprived of a legal right to limit their working hours, according to a ruling by the European Union.
Ministers have been given two months to respond to an embarrassing EU judgment that the Government is breaking the law on the issue.
Much to the fury of British business leaders, a ruling obtained by the Amicus-MSF union declares that it is an employer's responsibility to ensure that the legal minimum of breaks and holidays are taken. Under Britain's interpretation of the working time directive, however, the employee can "choose" not to take them. This has led to union accusations that employers are "leaning" on staff.
The "infringement proceedings" taken by the European Commission against the Government also argue that the system whereby workers can "volunteer" to work additional hours above the statutory 48-hour weekly limit is unlawful. In Britain there is no provision for the employer to record the extra hours employees work.
Roger Lyons, general secretary of Amicus-MSF, said that such practices "drive a coach and horses" through the directive. "It particularly affects managers and professionals who are under pressure to volunteer to keep working and millions do so to the detriment of family and social life," Mr Lyons said.
In contradiction of the directive, overtime hours worked on night shifts are excluded in the count towards working time, the judgement said.
Mr Lyons described the infringement proceedings as a "historic victory" which his union had been pursuing for three years since the Department of Trade and Industry refused to review its implementation of the law.
However John Cridland, deputy director general of the CBI, urged ministers to mount a "robust defence" of their policies. "The Government has struck a balance between giving workers the choice not to work long hours and preserving company flexibility. Some trade unionists seem uninterested in flexibility. They only want to control and nanny how long people work. It is nonsense."
Ian Fletcher, head of policy at the British Chambers of Commerce, said the existing regulations struck the right balance. "They provide flexibility for those individuals who want to work, while protecting those who do not," he said.
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