Britain's employers have issued a surprise call on the government to tighten up the regulations on the controversial European Working Time Directive (WTD) in an attempt to stave off the growing chorus for the UK's opt-out from the legislation to be scrapped.
Despite its robust defence of Britain's flexible labour market, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has called for stronger safeguards against abuses of the WTD legislation.
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.
But now the CBI has asked the government to redraft its regulations so the employers can no longer force employees to agree to the opt-out as a condition of an employment contract and cannot force an opt-out on an employee at the last moment.
It has also proposed that employees should be able to cancel an opt-out agreement at any time after a reasonable notice period. Currently, employer and employee can agree a notice period of up to three months.
The unusual move by the CBI comes as the European Commission undertakes a review of the UK implementation of the WTD.
While the UK government is opposed to the removal of the opt-out, it may nevertheless be forced by the EU to introduce stronger safeguards against abuse as a condition of the opt-out remaining in force.
In February, European Parliament voted to end Britain's opt-out from the 48-hour working week. While not legally binding, the vote alarmed business leaders because it sent a signal that the Commission might support the trade union campaign on the issue.
The CBI is also worried by proposals from Brussels to force employers to record the hours of all staff who opt-out of the WTD. It believes the proposals could increase record-keeping costs by up to a third.
Unions claim that the British implementation of the WTD is deeply flawed and widely ignored by unscrupulous employers.
A TUC survey last year claimed that the number of employees working long hours had been cut by just three per cent, with just under 4m still working more than 48 hours and more than half a million doing in excess of 60 hours a week.
An unpublished European Union research report obtained by the TUC last year also revealed widespread abuse of the WTD, including compulsory signing of opt-outs, pressure on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.
But the CBI maintains that there is no evidence of widespread abuse of the opt-out and that many employees want to work longer hours out of commitment to their job the lure of overtime bonuses.
John Cridland, CBI deputy director general, said: "Abuse of the law is clearly unacceptable but claims that this is widespread are wildly overdone. Business wants to stamp out abuses that do exist as they undermine the regulations and put law-abiding firms at a competitive disadvantage."