German and French politicians pressing for the introduction of more flexible labour laws will be able to take comfort from a European survey showing a clear majority of people calling for greater freedom to work longer hours.

Work- life balance chart

Some 65 per cent of Germans and 52 per cent of French oppose government controls on working hours, according to a Financial Times/Harris poll that interviewed almost 10,000 people over 16 in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Spain.

Working hours are controlled under an EU directive limiting the maximum time employees can work to no more than an average of 48 hours a week spread over a 17 week period.

Some 52 per cent of Britons – many of whom already have the right to opt out of the EU directive under a waiver negotiated by the British government – also opposed government control over working hours, according to the survey. Only Spain was out of step, with some 72 per cent of adults supporting government curbs. Italians were evenly split, with 43 per cent opposing curbs on hours and 37 per cent in favour.

Unemployment in Germany and France in recent years has been running at twice the British rate. This has prompted some politicians to question the effectiveness of highly protective labour regulations in the two countries, compared with the more liberal Anglo-Saxon model.

Concerns have been heightened by the threat to jobs of low-cost labour competition from new east European EU members such as Poland and Slovakia. Bernd Pischetsrieder, Volkswagen chief executive, warned this summer that the company would shift production of its Golf model out of Germany unless unions accepted the principle of moving from 28.8 hours a week to 35 hours without extra pay.

Ségolène Royal, one of the Socialist frontrunners for next year’s French presidential election, caused a storm in June when she criticised the country’s mandatory 35-hour working week on her campaign web site.

She claimed the 35-hour week eroded the rights of the country’s weakest workers.

The FT/Harris poll, which also questioned workers about their attitude to mandatory retirement ages, pension provision and holiday entitlements, reported many workers concerned that employers would change the terms of their occupational pension schemes before they could retire.

Italians, who have one of the highest levels of such schemes, were most worried, with 72 per cent expressing concern compared with 33 per cent in France, the least concerned.

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