Some 52 per cent of British adults rejected curbs to working hours according to a Financial Times/Harris poll which interviewed almost 10,000 people over the age of 16 in five European countries – the UK, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.
The findings suggest that a majority of voters would have supported the Government’s defence of Britain’s opt-out which allows employees to choose to work longer than the European Union limits of a maximum average working week of 48 hours.
A campaign led by France and Spain to end the opt-out was defeated at the beginning of June when talks collapsed under the Austrian presidency of the EU.
However, the FT/Harris poll reveals substantial support for greater freedom to work longer hours in Germany and France, countries which traditionally have attracted popular domestic backing for their more protective labour regulations.
High unemployment rates in Germany and France – which have been running at twice the rate of Britain’s – and the prospect of losing more jobs to lower-cost eastern European labour markets, have prompted some politicians to reconsider the benefits of a more flexible approach to labour regulations.
A third of Britons said the Government should have right to restrict working hours Britain’s opt-out under the EU working time directive is strongly opposed by domestic unions which fear that vulnerable workers may be forced into choosing to work longer hours than is healthy.
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress responding to the survey said: “Attitudes to working time protection crucially depend on how the question is asked.
People do want protection against excess working hours that damage their health and relationships, even when poor pay forces them to notch up maximum overtime to provide a decent living standard.”
The poll found that some 65 per cent of Germans and 52 per cent of French oppose government restrictions on working hours.
Only the Spanish were out of step with 72 per cent of the population backing curbs.
Overall some 47 per cent of western Europeans oppose restrictions on working hours.
There were big differences however in the attitudes of workers from different countries over their willingness to consider working beyond their normal retirement age.
British employees were most willing, with 72 per cent prepared to work longer compared with only 41 per cent of French workers.