by Richie Venton
One of the most perverse contradictions in a system riddled with cruel absurdities is that of the working week.
Whilst unemployment leaps upwards, with a scourge of redundancies and closures, the length of the working week for vast hordes of workers increases.
Whilst employers lay off workers, cutting their hours and pay, others demand overtime of their workers – and obscene proportions of this is unpaid overtime.
Long Hours Culture
The UK suffers a notorious ‘Long Hours Culture’. And after a few years of decline (in the years 1998-2006), the hours worked is rising rapidly again.
Figures from December 2008 show that full-time workers in the UK put in an average of 42.1 hours a week - although that is acknowledged to be an under-estimate, not including undeclared hours on second jobs.
Beneath this average lies appalling levels of drudgery for a big minority: one in eight works over 48 hours a week!
And for male workers, the figure is 19.7 per cent exceeding the 48 hour week.
Put another way, in Scotland alone, 260,000 workers are on over 48 hours; 3.3 million across the UK. The latter figure is an increase of 180,000 compared with 2007.
A breath-taking 460,000 workers clock up over 60 hours work a week (54,000 of these in Scotland) - leaving little else time for family or social life after travel to work time and sleep is accounted for!
Long hours at work lead to increased illness, including stress.
It also lowers productivity levels, and reduces Health and Safety for the workforce, as tired people are a risk to others as well as themselves in many jobs.
21st Century Drudgery
So why do workers in Scotland and the UK put in such back-breaking, mind-boggling hours at work in the 21st century?
One of the most obvious causes is low hourly rates of pay. This country is one of the lowest-waged economies in the advanced world. Workers are frequently compelled to clock up the hours to get a half-decent income for themselves and their families – through hours that lead to neglect of family life and increased family break-ups.
But there is also a more naked form of exploitation that explains the Long Hours Culture: unpaid overtime. An absolute majority of the workers on long hours get no extra pay for their overtime. Last year, 5.24 million workers in the UK (425,000 in Scotland) worked unpaid overtime, to a total value of £27billion.
That is the highest toll of unpaid labour since records began in 1992.
It is the equivalent of working for absolutely nothing from 1st January to 27th February last year.
It means these workers gave their bosses an average of £5,139 worth of work without getting a single penny in pay.
As socialists as far back as Karl Marx in the 1840s have explained, profit is the unpaid labour of the working class.
Two of the several means by which the capitalist class boost their profits are by intensifying the amount of production a worker provides during the hours of work, and by lengthening the working week.
Certainly in recent decades bosses have extracted more work out of fewer workers as a means of piling up their profits. But the growing trend of unpaid overtime is one of the most glaring forms of profiteering. And it is likely to rise, as the recession bites deeper; fear of being made unemployed gives the employers a powerful weapon to pressure people into unpaid hours of extra work.
All this, whilst the number of people with no hours of work – the unemployed – rockets to levels not seen in years.
And meantime many employers – including in sectors as varied as the car industry, steel, the finance sector – are putting workers on reduced hours with equivalent cuts in pay; prolonged shut-downs with savage pay cuts; ‘sabbaticals’ as an alternative to outright redundancies – all to preserve profit margins at cost to workers’ pay packets.
Open Secret Company Accounts
Instead of feeding the philosophy that there is nothing can be done about all this – and specifically about job losses – it is high time the leaderships of the trade union movement spearheaded an aggressive campaign to ‘cut hours – not jobs’, to ‘cut hours – not pay’.
Every time some employer demands layoffs, redundancies or outright closures, the first demands of the trade union movement and its allies should be for public inspection of all the secret company accounts, to expose where all the profits have gone – and in many cases where all the public grants and subsidies have gone. And this should not just look at the current year’s accounts, where bosses may be able to demonstrate loss-making during the recession – but also the accounts for previous years of piling up profits.
Such an exercise would provide plenty of ammunition to challenge the employers’ ‘justification’ for job losses or closures.
Cut Hours – not Jobs or Pay
But regardless of whether companies and public sector employers are announcing job losses, they should be challenged by a generalised campaign for a shorter working week – without a penny being lost in pay.
As an immediate initial step, the battle-cry for a 35 hour maximum working week across the board, but crucially without loss of earnings, would rally workers and their families around an eminently rational measure in this crazed, profit-motivated system.
Such a shorter working week would vastly reduce stress levels and other illnesses, help improve health and safety at work, and actually boost productivity from less tired, more motivated workers.
It would greatly improve the family and social lives of working people – a real measure to enhance the much talked about ‘work/life balance’.
And crucially, it would create at least a couple of million jobs across the UK!
Challenging the Profit System
The demands to ‘cut hours – not jobs’ and ‘cut hours – not pay’ would of course challenge the central motive of capitalist employers: profit.
They impose long hours; unpaid overtime; pay cuts through prolonged shut-downs and reduced hours; closures and redundancies…. all to secure the maximum profit levels at the expense of workers’ lives being made a misery.
By cutting the working week, but protecting the level of income of workers, a greater share of national wealth would be distributed in wages, a lesser percentage in profit.
This fight to share out the work, without loss of earnings, needs to run in tandem with the campaign for a living minimum wage, a safety net of at least £8 to £9 an hour, based on the formula of two-thirds median male earnings.
Many who work day and night at risk to their own health are on dirt cheap wages – a system encouraged rather than eliminated by the pathetic level of Labour’s current minimum wages.
There are alternatives to long hours of work alongside no work for millions, a rational alternative to the slaughter of jobs in pursuit of profit margins.
The potential power of the unions and the communities they are rooted in needs to be combined with the sharp weapon of fighting demands that would share out the work rather than share out the misery.