Friday 19 December 2008

No need for long hours

I welcome the vote in the European Parliament to end the UK opt-out from the working time directive. This has been an anomaly for too long, and it is to the shame of Labour that they have not only not abolished the opt-out themselves, but actively opposed its abolition. Many of the arguments put forward by those who wish to retain the opt-out are specious at best.

Some employers' organisations try to present this as preventing workers from 'choosing' to work longer hours, but the reality is that the employees often have little choice. I am aware of some organisations, for instance, where it is a condition of employment that staff sign a 'voluntary' waiver of their rights before they are employed.

The representative of the IoD even argued that we need longer hours to get us out of the recession. I'm not convinced - employing fewer people for longer hours seems to me a much less effective way of doing that than employing more people for shorter hours – and the latter is more likely to build social inclusion and share wealth as well.

Others have argued that it goes against the differing 'employment cultures' in the different European states. That seems to be code for the fact that the UK has a culture of long hours, and employers wish to retain that. One has to ask why. I've worked in organisations with that type of culture – and it often means that people are afraid not to be in work before the boss, and afraid to be seen to be going home before him. Do they achieve any more? Not in my experience - there comes a point where 'presenteeism' becomes ineffective and adds nothing to overall output. There is a huge difference between increasing output and increasing productivity. Working longer can increase output; but increasing productivity has more to do with working smarter.

Most worrying of all, however, is surely the idea that the UK's 'competitiveness' somehow depends on people working longer hours than our European neighbours. Why? And what on earth does it say about our systems and processes if other European countries can deliver more effectively that we can in shorter hours?

For too long, the culture of long hours has been used as an excuse by some employers for their own failures to invest in equipment, processes, and training - and it is the employees who have paid the cost. A common playing field across Europe should be something we welcome, not fear.


Anonymous said...

....ok....but didn't you know that after you work the 39 hours per week then you usually get paid time and a half. You try living on 39 x minimum wage which is bloody peanuts. I work 60 hours per week on average and that way I am making a living whereby I can get by. It would of course be ok if the minimum wage was £10 per hour but I think the Chinese and Indians would be only too happy. I'm afraid they won't care one jot about your socialist principles.

John Dixon said...

"but didn't you know that after you work the 39 hours per week then you usually get paid time and a half"

Many do of course, but there are plenty of other employers who expect their staff to work the extra hours for standard time, or even for nothing. But even if everybody got paid an enhanced rate for doing overtime, I simply do not agree that because the minimum wage is too low, then employers should be allowed to force employees to work longer hours in order to earn a decent wage.

I'm not sure which part of my concept of 'socialist principles' you think means that we should simply allow multi-nationals to move jobs to wherever wages are lowest. It's one of the reasons why I think we should be opposing globalisation and seeking to re-localise our economy.

Anonymous said...

I agree with you John that one should be able to earn a descent wage without having to work over-time but I am now able to earn as much as say a putting the hours in. I would never be able to do that if my hourse were limited to 48. A professional's wage will always be higher than somebody like me if my hours are limited....but I can and thousands if not millions like me can make things even out by being allowed to work the extra time - which this law will not allow us to do.

I gree with you about your point about globalization and re-localising our economy.

John Dixon said...


I understand the concern which those dependant on working long hours to earn a decent income feel about moves to prevent them doing so, although the real issue here, I feel, is how we get wages up to a level where people can earn a decent amount without feeling the need to work excessive hours. The problem is that the lack of a legal limit allows some employers to force people into long hours as well. It's important to protect the exploited.

There is also the question, of course, of using shorter hours to employ more people rather that having fewer people working longer hours whilst others are unemployed.