Euro-MPs have been urged by Birmingham business leaders to vote to retain a flexible labour market ahead of today'scrucial vote on plans to scrap Britain's opt-out from EU rules limiting working hours.
Pressure has been building in Brussels for months to remove the right of employees to work longer than the maximum 48 hours a week allowed under the EU's existing Working Time Directive.
Britain alone allows workers to exceed 48 hours a week in any sector of work - if they reach a signed agreement with employers.
Unions have complained that the opt-out is regularly abused by companies which force people to work long hours.
But employers' organisations say removing it would hit vital labour market flexibility.
The plans under consideration by MEPs would phase out the opt-out over three years.
To counter complaints that the 48-hour week would then be too inflexible, the maximum would be averaged over 12 months instead of the current 17 weeks.
The final decision rests with EU ministers, but MEPs will add to the pressure if they signal today that it is time for the opt-out to go. Birmingham Chamber of Commerce wants local MEPs to vote against three of the amendments, but back two others.
Jerry Blackett, policy director at Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, said: " Employers and employees strongly value the UK's opt out from the maximum 48-hour working week.
"If an employee wants to work longer hours and is remunerated properly, they should have the freedom to do so."
Another issue involves the necessity to strengthen the protection of workers' health and safety, but the chamber went on to point out: "The UK has an excellent health and safety record - the third best in the EU - and average working hours are declining.
"There is no justification for restricting the flexibility of our labour market on health and safety grounds."
Coventry and Warwickshire Chamber of Commerce faxed its demands to all of the region's MEPs ahead of the vote.
Annette Fitzgerald, head of policy at Coventry Chamber, said: "These laws may be suitable for certain European countries, but are not for the UK and its businesses."
Sir Digby Jones, director general of the CBI, said abolishing the opt-out would remove a "vital choice" for employees.
He added: "It would seriously restrict the UK's flexible labour market and flies in the face of the EU's ambition to become the most competitive in the world by 2010."
The plan by Labour MEPs to vote in favour of scrapping the opt-out would be the first major rebellion against Tony Blair since last week's General Election.
MEP Stephen Hughes, who speaks for the EU Socialist Group on employment issues, said: "We don't want an opt-out and what we do want is a proper balance between work and family life in Britain and every other member state of the EU."
Among those calling for the scrapping of the opt-out yesterday was shopworkers' union Usdaw which is campaigning against a perceived "long hours culture" in the retail sector.
A poll of nearly 2,000 Usdaw members found that a third worked an average of more than 48 hours a week while 95 per cent wanted to work fewer hours.
"This is an issue of both fairness and saving our members' lives," general secretary John Hannett said.
"We don't want our members to feel under pressure to work long hours and all the evidence says fatigue is a significant factor in workplace accidents so it is a matter of life or death in some cases."