An unpublished European Union research report has revealed widespread abuse of the Working Time Directive in the UK.
The report was commissioned from three Cambridge University academics in the run up to the European Commission’s review of the UK opt-out.
The UK is the only EU country that allows everyone at work to sign away their right to work no more than an average 48-hour average working week.
The research by three Cambridge University academics was based on 13 case studies of anonymous companies drawn from a range of sectors where long hours working is common.
The European Commission received the report in December 2002 but did not publish it.
According to the TUC, which has obtained a full copy of the research, the findings reveal a litany of abuses including compulsory signing of opt-outs (compulsion is not permitted), pressure on staff to sign opt-outs, workplaces where the law is ignored and staff illegally asked to opt out of their rights to rest breaks and night work limits.
At one investment bank studied, opt-outs were included in the standard contract of employment that all staff sign. Another bank said opting-out was voluntary, but included briefings throughout the recruitment and induction process.
Other employers had similar systems where all staff were encouraged in various ways to opt out as they start work. One health service employer has not asked anyone to sign an opt-out though 15 per cent of its staff are working more than 48 hours on average. A hotel chain asked staff to sign a form opting out of "regulations relating to maximum weekly working time, length of night work and rest periods".
Two companies provided opt-in forms as well as opt-out ones, a highly dubious practice since as there is no need to ‘opt in’ - everyone is protected unless they opt out.
TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber said the report showed the UK's opt-out policy was failing to protect workers' rights and should be scrapped.
“This report only surveyed 13 employers, and they were largely put forward by trade bodies so might be expected to be above average. Yet even in this small and unrepresentative sample there is widespread abuse of the rules, straight lawbreaking and widespread confusion about the regulations,” he said.
“Much of the long hours working appears to reflect bad work organisation and poor productivity. Staff may say they want the long hours to earn the overtime, but it is possible to work shorter hours, be more productive and still earn the same pay as workers across Europe know.”
While employers' groups such as the Institute of Directors continue to insist that the majority of those who work long hours do so voluntarily or to further their careers, the Cambridge research reveals low productivity and a series of health issues in companies where staff work very long hours.
One company stated that they “have issues of stress and burnout which we manage as part of normal management process”. A manger at another firm said “I think we get lots of unproductive time in our working week because they are so knackered.”
The report also found low levels of enforcement of working time rules. One employer is quoted as saying, “there are probably loads of firms out there who just ignore it. But nobody is doing anything about them because there is no policing of it.” Another construction firm said, “good companies like ours comply readily whilst others ignore the regulations and get away with it at present and place their workforce at risk as a result."
According to the TUC, this widespread abuse means that there is growing support for ending the opt-out from responsible companies who see their competitors ignoring the rules.
"This report confirms that the UK’s individual opt-out has blown a huge hole in working time protection,” Brendan Barber said. “It is a key contributor to our long hours culture. Only its abolition will start to make a difference."