The Guardian June 21, 2000


For a Shorter Working Week Now!

by Magda Hansson

The last decade of global restructuring has seen the rich get richer, 
middle incomes stagnate and the number of poor increase. Public and private 
debt has grown while the share of income to capital has risen and the share 
going to labour has fallen to such an extent that the world's wealthiest 
225 individuals "earn" as much as the poorest 3 billion (UN Human 
Development Fund 1998). Job and income security has vanished with 
corporate restructuring, privatisation, labour shedding, wage suppression 
and job intensification. Farmers have seen their incomes fall as the 
middlemen reap the profits from agricultural deregulation.

What sort of a place has the work place become for those that are able to 
get work? Certainly not worker friendly. The talk of "employee empowerment" 
and "self managing" work teams are over. Now "business process engineering" 
treats workers as an "input" who are fired with "maximum flexibility". 
Companies now shun the "pain of being an employer" and get rid of militant, 
unionised workers by contracting out all but core staff functions to labour 
hire companies. This is how Patrick Stevedores attempted to dispose of 
unionised wharf workers. ("Outsourcing: the hidden way business is beating 
the unions" Financial Review 19/4/98)

Info technology has created unprecedented means to monitor behaviour and 
measure output. So "grocery warehouse storemen have their pace of work 
benchmarked and they must log in their ID number and an order code to start 
each work assignment and if they fail too often against the clock they may 
be counselled, disciplined and ultimately dismissed" (``Why your boss is 
bugging you'' S. Long, Financial Review 28/6/98)

Performance based contracts, enterprise bargaining, work agreements and 
annualisation of salaries mean that "not since the 18th century have 
employers been able to exercise such controls over the private lives of 
their work forces". 

Loyalty

Employer "loyalty" is invoked to stop employees from acting to "damage the 
interests of the company" (R McCallum "Employers' Rights Over Workers 
Outside the Workplace" 1998) It may include political, union activity, 
lifestyle choice or other work.

Thanks to thirteen years of wage-productivity trade offs under the class-
collaborationist Accord and the institution of enterprise bargaining, 
workers are finding it harder to harness their power in the workplace to 
improve conditions of work and quality of life. 

Wage rises are harder to get and workers must sign up to increase 
productivity, accept reduced shift penalty rates and rostered days off 
while unions are being told to be more relaxed about the use of casuals, 
contractors and part-time employees. Normal work hours are disappearing and 
unpaid overtime is expected of many workers. In the finance sector 
employees are working over 1 million unpaid overtime hours per week while 
the banks are posting record profits.

Waves of legislation have changed industrial relations to strip away rights 
and conditions. It is now illegal for unions to seek supporting industrial 
action from other unions or workplaces but employers' mates  customers, 
suppliers or "aggrieved" third parties  routinely sue unions because it 
interferes with their corporate "right" to trade freely.

Sacrifices! For what?

Workers were originally told that these sacrifices would lead to a better 
life and a fairer society? Better for whom you might ask? 

Trade unions gained the 38-hour week in 1981. Since that time, total factor 
productivity in Australia has risen more than 20 per cent. Goods or 
services produced in 38 hours in 1981 now take 30 hours or less to produce. 
Productivity in manufacturing has risen by an estimated 40 per cent. What 
was made in 38 hours in 1981 now takes about 23 hours! 

Instead of working hours being shortened as productivity increased, they 
are getting longer. Work is more intensive and monitored more minutely. 
Manufacturing output has grown steadily, yet industry employment has fallen 
by more than a fifth in the last 20 years!

Manufacturing workers produced this result for their employers by giving 
them a "flexible" workforce and making their products globally 
"competitive". When employers say "competitiveness" they really mean "cost-
cutting". In return for their "co-operation" workers were downsized, 
contracted-out and re-engineered. 

Workers are ready for, and richly deserve pay rises and shorter hours. Over 
two decades of wage restraint and longer hours enormous wealth has been 
generated for capital. It is now obvious that the "good times" for workers 
will not arrive if left to employers and the markets.

What is happening in Australia is part of a drive in all the global 
capitalist economies to intimidate workers and crush freedom of association 
and collective bargaining rights. The future in store for workers around 
the world is one of slavery, fear and violence, unless workers fight for 
their rights  including the basic right to organise. Only strong unions 
give workers power to pursue a better life.

Effects on women

The culture of long hours creates unsustainable stress and oppresses those 
in the workplace despite financial rewards. In what is predominantly a 
men's world, the long work hours that often go with a "career" relegates 
women partners to domestic drudgery even if they are also holding a "job". 
Women are more likely to reduce hours at some stage to bear children and be 
the family's prime carer. They often retard or abandon their careers in 
this sort of culture. 

What is more, "women are three times more likely to be employed part-time, 
but in a society where longer hours remain the norm, part-time workers are 
locked in a position of economic and social subordination". Most sole 
parents (93 per cent) are women. 

In this situation women (and the young) are over-represented in low-paid, 
poorly unionised sectors of the workforce. For women in Australia, casual 
employment, with its absence of benefits and rights such as holiday, sick 
leave, penalty rates for long, or odd hours), has grown by 82 per cent 
since 1984. 

Long hours and overwork increases the unemployment of others and 
exacerbates inequality, in the workforce and society generally. It helps to 
create a hierarchy of labour, from the well-paid core workers to increasing 
pool of the casual, the part-time, the marginalised and excluded. 

Shorter working week

Reduced working hours creates new work opportunities for those seeking work 
 by creating employment. It creates more leisure time for full-time 
workers. 

It would increase wages (through higher hourly rates) for part-time 
workers. It ensures that increased productivity leads to more free-creative 
time, not more unemployment. It gives labour an incentive to increase 
productivity if workers receive the benefits from their work. It puts 
people not profits at the centre of economics.

Shorter hours make it possible to under-cut the economic foundations of 
class society. Shorter hours reduces the ability of employers to extract a 
giant surplus from their exploitation of the labour of workers. 

World-wide campaign 

* The French Government consisting of socialists, communists and greens has 
legislated for a 35-hour week effective since the beginning of this year. 
An inspectorate has been set up to enforce maximum overtime to 39 hours in 
total.

* Italian workers have had legislation for a shorter working week adopted. 
It will take effect at the beginning of next year.

* Greek workers have a 35-hour week in the construction industry.

* Norwegians have recently won an extra weeks' leave for everyone and an 
extra two weeks for those over 60 years of age. This was gained as a result 
of a general strike.

* South Korean workers are currently taking strike action to reduce working 
hours from an effective 50-hour week to a 40-hour week (Legally they have a 
44-hour week but hours have been pushed way up since the economic crisis.) 
They insist that workers should not be the only ones to make sacrifices 
since the economic collapse.

* In Australia Victorian construction workers have won a 36-hour week. In 
South Australia the Vehicle Builders' Union has demanded that Toyota 
increase pay by 24 per cent and introduce a 35 hour week. 

* * *
To contact the Shorter Work Week Action Committee: Email: shorterworkweek@hotmail.com Website: http://www.geocities.com/shorterworkweek Telephone: (02) 9758 4497, or (02) 4284 8004. Address: PO Box 291 Belmore, NSW, 2192

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