The oppression of long working hours

Employees in the UK worked a record amount of unpaid overtime during 2013, with the number of people regularly doing unpaid work at the highest levels since comparable records began in 1998.In the North West we are working at an above average rate of 7.9 hours per week. This is indicative of a workforce here in the North West which is under increasing pressure to work extra hours, without actually getting paid for the work they are putting in. These telling statistics should also be considered in the context of the fact that in the UK full time employees worked the third longest working hours in Europe at the last count. Long working weeks can be typical in a capitalist system where corporations produce items or provide services solely to maximise profit. Or as Marx described ‘ the prolongation of the working day, beyond the limits of the natural day, into the night…quenches only in a slight degree the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour. To appropriate labour during all 24 hours of the day is, therefore, the inherent tendency of capitalist production.’

Adding to this pressure to work longer the two main political parties seem intent on pedalling a ‘hard working families’ agenda. I recently attended Ed Miliband’s keynotes speech on the NHS here in Manchester where I was dismayed to see the words ‘ Hardworking Families Better Off’ draped on all four corners of the stage. As was pointed out by an audience member on the evening this could easily have been a conservative party tag line, whose own MP’s, MEPS and councillors never fail to mention ‘hardworking families’ in any interview they give on television or in the press. It is no wonder then that there seems to have been a cultural shift in Manchester where workers feel that if they are not working long hours then they are clearly not working hard enough and will be caricatured as a ‘shirker’ by peers and colleagues in line with the vicious characterisation by the right wing media in their constant attack on the welfare state since 2010. Indeed I have noted during the course of my working life the tactic of management accusing employees of not working as hard as their colleagues. I often wondered to myself whether every employee was in fact accused of this.

Despite this fetishizing of the hardworking families not one of the 3 main political parties has, at the present time, actually pledged to cap working hours during the next electoral term or even put in place measures to reduce them. This is in spite of the negative health, social, environmental and economic impacts that long working hours have. Without being in any way exhaustive I list a few of the more immediately apparent impacts below:
1. Long working hours for some means less jobs for many. If someone is regularly working 70 hours a week then it should be apparent that in fact there are two jobs available. Reducing working hours would redistribute paid work more evenly across Manchester;
2. There are numerous physical and mental health problems associated with working long hours on a regular basis. These include hypertension, heart disease, fatigue, stress, depression and diabetes;
3. Long employed working hours have an adverse effect on the amount of unwaged ‘work’ we can do which is equally vital to society. For example, we have less time to look after elderly relatives, our children or other friends and family who require care; and
4. John Bekken observes that automation and other innovations result in output per hour doubling every 25 years or so, yet average working hours are not decreasing. As Don Fitz additionally notes as far back as 1989 J.W Smith argued that ‘we could eliminate much industrial pollution and conserve our precious dwindling resources by eliminating the 50% of industry that is producing nothing useful for society.’

A reduction in working hours therefore is vital if we are to cut back on the amount of natural resources we are using when we are currently using the equivalent of 1.5 planets worth of resources each year. Back in May 2013 Steady State Manchester suggested to the Manchester City Economic Scrutiny Committee that a campaign should be launched to ban the opt out option on the European working time directive and to also extend the councils own 35 hour week maximum to its contract partners via its procurement exercises. These proposals would certainly be an achievable and viable short term goal in order to tackle the immediate effects of unpaid overtime. However, if, as Jon Bekken observes, we have been doubling output per hour for the last 25 years then a much shorter week is not only desirable but wholly necessary in order to have profound long term effects on the four outcomes listed above. To this end the New Economic Foundation have argued in fact we should be moving towards a 21 hour working week. That work pattern would comfortably provide us with necessities such as healthcare, housing and energy but would significantly reduce the amount of disposal, consumable items that are being produced and harming the planet. Such a reduction would give people back control over their time allowing them to decouple from carbon intensive past times, care for others and act as equal partners with professionals and other public service workers in co-producing well-being.

The most difficult element of attempting to drastically reduce the average working week would seem to be offsetting the associated drop in incomes. For such a system to flourish for all we would undoubtedly need a more progressive taxation system enabling large scale investment in free public services, as well as the enforcement of a living wage across all sectors. A further, more radical proposal would be the introduction of a ‘universal basic income’ as was proposed at the Future of Work Event organised by ‘We Are Plan C’ in Manchester recently. In other words each person in Manchester would be entitled to a set amount each year from the state which would cover the basic needs such as housing, food and energy. This would be very definitely un-means tested and would be a right with no potential for sanction. With the material necessities in life taken care of it may be that in these circumstances people decide to work much less 21 hours. The crucial element however would be that people would have control over their time and would be empowered to be able to make choices as to how they wish to work and for how long. After all if we are not working for a healthier, happier life and in jobs we feel make a positive contribution to our communities then why are we working?

Robert J Brown

This entry was posted in economics, key concepts, working time and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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