More than one in four employees in the UK works longer than 48 hours each week. According to a study published today by the International Labour Organisation, more of the UK's workforce put in "excessive hours" than in any other developed country.
The ILO estimates that 22% of workers around the world – or over 600 million people – are working excessively long hours, i.e. more than 48 hours a week.
Among those countries with the highest incidence of long working hours for 2004-05 (defined as more than 48 hours per week), Peru topped the list at 50.9% of workers, followed by the Republic of Korea (49.5%), Thailand (46.7%) and Pakistan (44.4%).
In developed countries, where working hours are typically shorter, the UK stood at 25.7%, Israel at 25.5%, Australia at 20.4%, Switzerland at 19.2%, and the US at 18.1%.
The ILO report noted that laws and policies on working time have a limited influence on actual working hours in developing economies. But the same appears to be true in the UK.
The Working Time Regulations implement the EU’s Working Time Directive in the UK. The Directive provides that workers in all sectors, public or private, must not work longer than 48 hours a week, including overtime. The Directive also specifies requirements for rest periods, breaks and no less than four weeks' paid holiday per year. Its aim is to protect workers from the health and safety consequences of overworking.
However, in 1993, the UK negotiated an opt-out which allows member states not to apply the limit to working hours under certain conditions: prior agreement of the individual; no negative fall-out from refusing to opt-out; and records kept of working hours of those that have opted out.
Robyn McIlroy, an employment law specialist at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said: "There is no doubt that the right to ask employees to opt-out of the 48-hour limit on average weekly working time affords employers more flexibility, particularly during periods of heavy demand."
"Despite that there is increasingly a recognition that perpetuation of a long-hours culture will ultimately be counter-productive, particularly with an ageing working population, and compared to even five years ago more firms than ever before genuinely would prefer that their employees enjoy work-life balance," she said.
In February 2006, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) responded to reports at the time which said that more people work over 48 hours in the UK than in other EU countries. The CIPD said that a far greater proportion of the UK workforce works less than 30 hours a week than on the continent. It also said that the average working hours for full-time workers in the UK are falling. Its survey, Working Time Regulations: Calling Time on Working Time, claimed that three-quarters of long-hours workers do so out of choice.
According to the CIPD, removing the opt-out clause from the UK Regulations would increase moonlighting, as employees may be forced to take up a second job if overtime is curtailed.
In June 2006, at a meeting of the EU Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council, the UK and other members states defended their right to retain the opt-out.