Manufacturers and the government are fighting a rearguard action to prevent the European Commission (EC) curtailing Britain's opt-out to the Working Time Directive (WTD) which sets a maximum average 48-hour working week.
The EC wants to give trades unions and staff councils the right to decide whether employees can work more than 48 hours a week. Where there is no such representation, individual workers would be able to consent, but not when signing an employment contract or during probationary periods and such an agreement could not exceed a year.
In a concession, the EC proposed that the 48 hours be calculated over six months rather than the current four months, or over 12 months if there is a collective agreement by workers with firms.
In any case, no worker would be allowed to work more than 65 hours in a single week, under an EC proposal yet to be passed by European Union ministers and the European Parliament.
"The UK has been accused of abusing [the opt-out], which is unfounded," said Freight Transport Association (FTA) policy manager Joan Williams.
The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) is one of many arguing that withdrawing the opt-out completely would reduce business flexibility. However, it is not against tightening up of the rules. In particular, it would like a three-month "cooling off period" for new employees during which they could change their minds about opting out.
The Road Transport Directive, part of the WTD covering "mobile" workers such as lorry drivers, is also expected to cause problems when it takes effect next March. The government said that the directive would cost UK business in excess of £1bn a year and result in the need for a further 21,900 drivers, exacerbating the current 60,000 shortage.
The FTA said that a pay rise of 8% would be needed to compensate for reduced drivers' hours. Some drivers have already received much higher awards.