EU policies exacerbate the long-hours culture

2005

A new report has stoked the fires of Europe's working time argument by suggesting that well-meaning politicians have created the long working hours culture with social policies that allow too many people too much time off.

What's more, says the Federation of European Employers (FedEE), the idea that Britain has the longest working hours in Europe is myth.

Despite having the most liberal working time regulations in western Europe, Britain's average work-week is only slightly higher than the overall EU25 average once the effects of short-term absence are taken into account.

According to FedEE research, the reality is that the average employee in every EU country works well in excess of their basic contractual hours.

But what goes around comes around, because the main reason for this is to cover for colleagues who are taking time off.

In countries such as Belgium, France and the Netherlands, more than one fifth of employees are absent from work at any given time, whilst in Sweden, work absence is a staggering 30 per cent.

This means that other staff have to work additional time to complete the tasks of their missing co-workers.

The real problem about working time, the FedEE argues, is not the imposition of statutory upper limits, but a social framework that makes it impossible for companies to operate efficiently within these limits.

"Our research clearly indicates that it is well-meaning policy makers who have created the long working hours culture, not greedy employers seeking to avoid an increase in employee headcounts," said Robin Chater, Secretary-General of the FedEE.

Put simply, social benefits such as paid annual leave and sickness absence, maternity and parental leave, and part-time working all reduce the staff numbers available for work in any typical week.

The governments of many EU member states have further enhanced these entitlements and created additional rights such as paternity leave, sabbaticals and leave to care for dependants.

Meanwhile, legally enforceable collective agreements have introduced even more opportunities to take time off, and double holiday pay received by workers in some countries makes it more financially rewarding to be on annual leave than at work.

Although additional time-off rights might be seen as an opportunity to generate extra jobs, the fragmented nature of absence due to such factors as sickness, emergency childcare or attendance at ante-natal clinics has meant that the cover required varies from day to day.

No jobholder can be expected to have the skills to work in the accounts department on a Wednesday, meet a technical sales representative on a Thursday and then end the week acting as secretary to the production director, the FedEE points out.

In Britain, meanwhile, the low level of non-productive time means, contrary to popular belief, that the working week is not significant different from several other EU states.

In fact the Dutch have longest fulltime working hours in western Europe at 45.5 hours, while at 44.8 hours a week, average working hours for full-time employees in the UK are similar to those in Austria and Ireland.

This may be explained by the fact that employees are absent from work for only 15.5 per cent of the time in the UK, whilst this figure rises to 23 per cent of the time in the Netherlands.

"Rather than seeking to prevent those who wish to work longer hours from improving their income levels, the focus of EU policy makers should be on removing the causes of work absence that are the main reason for obligatory additional working time," Robin Chater said.

"Now it is up to the EU and individual governments to wake up to the fact that staff time-off entitlements are the real working time issue and not the questions of standby time or opt-outs from the maximum 48-hour week."