"Britain has a flexible labour market"


The term "flexible labour" is used by government and business (eg CBI, Institute of Directors, etc ) to label Britain's relative lack of work restrictions (compared to other European countries).

Media coverage often suggests that "flexibility" means greater choice for workers. Here lies the fallacy. Employers may expect workers to be "flexible" enough to work long hours for months on end, regardless of the well-documented correlation between long hours and ill health. But workers apparently shouldn't expect employers to be "flexible" enough to put health/safety before profit.

Europe's Working Time Directive: an attack on flexible labour?

"British Industrial leaders insist the right to choose working hours is a key part of a flexible economy". (Guardian, 11/5/05).

The media reported that the UK government blocked European plans to remove working-hours rights.

Here's a different version: The UK government blocked Europe's attempts to protect workers from extended periods of long working hours (since there's overwhelming evidence that it increases health/safety risks). Europe seeks to impose a maximum 48-hour working week taken as an average over a period of 12 months. That last bit is omitted by most UK media reports. (The standard period of measurement is 4 months. The extension to 12 months is a compromise with the UK proposed by Europe, but still blocked by the UK).

Under Europe's plans, a person could work over 48 hours for several weeks (or months) and still fall below the 48-hour average (over 12 months). But this isn't "flexible" enough for UK industrial leaders. No, they want the "flexibility" of having people work over 48 hours per week for months on end, regardless of health/safety risks.

According to the Labour force survey (Autumn 2004, quoted by TUC):
67% of those who usually work more than 48 hours say that they want to work fewer hours.
61% of long hours workers do not receive any overtime pay.
Of the 39% who are paid overtime, 69% say that they want to work fewer hours even if this meant less pay.


[Note: the above article was written in 2005. We'll be providing an update on UK media coverage of the Working Time Directive, etc, in the near future]