Although the Working Time regulations have been law for more than a year, the HSE has received surprisingly few complaints. Helen Rowe reports
It was heralded as the beginning of the end for Britain's long-hours culture. But 16 months after the Working Time regulations came into force in the UK, the Health and Safety Executive has received a mere 339 complaints about long hours. Not one has resulted in a prosecution.
So why are so few employees coming forward to enforce their right to an average 48-hour week?
Janet Williamson of the TUC believes it is unlikely to be because the problem has gone away. Having introduced the legislation, she says, the Government now needs to act to make the complaints procedure more accessible.
She describes the 300-odd complaints received so far - plus an unknown number made to local authorities - as just the tip of the iceberg.
"I don't think these figures even remotely reflect the scale of the problem," she said. "But many people are not going to take that step of writing a formal letter to a body like the HSE that they have never heard of.
"That is not to say it is an inappropriate body but perhaps there are some sort of bridging mechanisms that are necessary to ensure the HSE is fully accessible and not so daunting.
"For example, the minimum wage hotline was well publicised but even then it can be very daunting, and we do get requests to contact it on people's behalf."
UK staff have the dubious distinction of consistently outperforming their European counter- parts on average working hours. Time and again, surveys show them to have the most gruelling hours and worst conditions.
Williamson says their readiness to use the Working Time law to tackle the problem may be influenced by the type of publicity surrounding its introduction. "A lot of it was generated by complaints from some parts of the business community, and that set the terms of the debate in terms of the public.
"It is unfortunate that that line of attack was allowed to dominate the debate.
"The European origin of the Working Time regulations did give the business community an extra stick but the Government was committed to the legislation and now I think it is time to get the regulations out there and make sure people know about them.
"We would call for anyt