Thursday, 12 December 2013

Sharing out the work

Some of the big battles of the past between capital and labour were about working hours, as much as about pay.  These days, 37 hours or thereabouts is generally accepted as the standard length of a five-day working week.  But 40 was more usual when I started work, and I remember my father working a six-day week, which was still fairly normal in the 1950s.
As a general rule, reductions in the working week have been the result of demands from the workforce – conceded only reluctantly by employers – and have come about in periods of increasing affluence.
Periods of economic hardship can also lead to a reduction in hours, however.  One of the controversial proposals put forward by Rhondda Cynon Tâf Council recently was that new staff should be employed on 35 hour contracts, (with the salary amended to reflect that fact).  Were it not for the salary sting in the tail, one would generally expect such a proposal to be broadly welcomed by staff and unions alike.
It isn’t the only sting in the tail, though.  There are three ways in which reduced hours for employees can be “paid for”.  The first is by reducing the amount of work done; the second by is by employing more people to do the work; and the third is by increasing the productivity of those being employed – getting more work out of the same people.  And there are two ways of delivering the last of those three options – the first is through better tools and processes, and the second is by increasing the pressure on employees by simply demanding – insisting even – that they work harder and faster.  In recent years this has tended to be the default option, and it's no coincidence that the incidence of stress-related illness has increased.
As far as I have seen, the council did not spell out which option they were planning to use; my suspicion is that it is simply a question of following the default option – buying bigger whips.
Now there will be those, of course, who see local government as something of a cushy option – Max Boyce’s song about “keeping their billy cans brewing” comes to mind.  Perhaps there are still corners of local government somewhere where this is a true picture, but I doubt that they’re widespread.  In effect, the council is suggesting that it should behave just like the worst capitalist employers, who believe that bigger whips solve problems.
In principle however, we should welcome any moves to reduce working hours and allow people more leisure time.  And the best way of paying for it is my option two above – employing more people to do the work.   

Much of what passes for economic policy these days seems to assume that unemployment is both temporary and the fault of the unemployed themselves.  But what if it’s neither?
In that case we would have only two economic options – recognising that those choosing not to work are doing the rest of us a favour by reducing competition for jobs (and then rewarding them appropriately for their altruism), or sharing what work there is more fairly between those available to do it.  In theory, the reduced salaries which we’d all receive should be matched by reducing the taxes we pay for benefits for the altruists whose choice not to work would disappear.
Of course there are issues about whether people have the right skills, abilities and experience.  And of course there are questions about how we make sure that the benefit of reduced taxes goes to those whose wages are reduced rather than to the richest.  But these are, at root, practical problems to be overcome.
What’s wrong with sharing work more fairly and sharing the rewards of work more fairly as a consequence? It's surely preferable to accepting that some of us will never have the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the economic life of our country.

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