Reasonable working hours

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For nearly three years, one of the main activities of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) has been to conduct a campaign for “reasonable working hours”. It commenced with a survey completed in October 1, which linked the sharp increase in working hours over the past two decades with stress-related illnesses and workplace accidents.

Apart from occasional media releases, the “campaign” consisted entirely of running a test case in the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC), seeking the insertion of a “reasonable hours” clause in federal awards. Few workers were involved in any way. No mass meetings or industrial action were ever called. The ACTU’s purpose was to bury the issue in the industrial court and head off any independent opposition and action by working people.

When the AIRC handed down its ruling at the end of last month, the result was predictable. It will do nothing to assist the millions of workers forced to work increasingly longer hours. Instead, the decision enshrines the present work regime, while creating the illusion that workers now have the right to refuse long overtime hours.

The court ruled that workers can refuse to work “excessive or unreasonable” overtime on a particular day on the grounds of family responsibilities or health and safety considerations. However, it neither defined what constitutes “excessive hours” nor placed a ceiling on the number of hours that employers can compel their staff to work. The ACTU did not seek such a definition nor insist on regulations that will restrict employers.

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At the same time, the AIRC rejected out of hand the only specific claim put forward by the ACTU that workers be given two days off with pay after working “extreme hours,” such as 48 hours per week for three months.

Nevertheless, ACTU president Sharon Burrow hailed the ruling as an “historic victory” that gave workers “empowerment and control” over their working lives.

Only those who are both distant from and indifferent to the enormous difficulties that plague the everyday lives of ordinary working people could make such a claim. Workers are unlikely to refuse to work overtime when they can be easily replaced from the existing massive pool of unemployed.

Nor can those who refuse to work “excessive hours” rely on any protection from the unions, which have agreed that the definition of “unreasonable” hours will be determined industry by industry “in accordance with their requirements”.

Moreover, real wages have declined so far over the past two decades that many workers are now forced to work extraordinary amounts of overtime just to make ends met.

The director of Adelaide University’s Centre for Labour Research, Dr Barbara Pocock, gave expert evidence in the case. Dr Pocock warned that the ruling “would not stop the trend towards longer hours”.

Just how little Burrow’s claim of worker empowerment corresponds to reality can be gauged from the comments from the federal government and major employers, who welcomed the ruling. Workplace Relations Minister Tony Abbott described the result as “fair”, saying that the issue of working hours remained “in the hands of companies and employees in the workplace”. Australian Industries Group chief executive Bob Herbert said little had changed as a result of the AIRC decision, because “these issues are mostly worked out at the workplace”.

Long hours and ill-health

Research conducted by Iain Campbell of RMIT University, which was presented during the ACTU test case, showed that average working hours in Australia are now longer than most other industrialised countries and are moving toward top ranking, alongside the US and South Korea.

The average full-time working week increased by .7 hours between 18 and 000, a larger increase than other OECD countries. According to Campbell, “this amounts to over 1 million extra hours per week or the equivalent of 550,000 full-time jobs”. From 18 to 000 this trend accelerated, adding 48 minutes to the average working week.

Between 185 and 00, the proportion of employees working 40-45 hours rose from .4 to 1. percent, while for 45-50 hours it increased from 17.8 to 6.1. The percentage working 50 hours or more rose from 10. to 17.4.

Data assembled by the ACTU revealed that the number working 60 hours or more increased from to over 7 percent between 180 and 16. The ACTU data also concluded that Australia has the highest rate of unpaid overtime among developed countries, with 5 percent of full-time employees not paid for an average of .7 hours a week each.

The precarious circumstances of young workers and those in casual employment make them most susceptible to employer pressure. A Young Christian Workers Association survey last year of 1,400 young casual workers aged 15 to 5 found that a third were forced to work overtime without pay.

A report commissioned by the ACTU showed that long hours dramatically worsen existing medical problems, including diabetes, epilepsy, hypertension, asthma and digestive problems. Working more than 55 hours a week doubles the risk of heart disease. Chronic fatigue associated with excessive hours has been linked to nervousness, anxiety, sexual problems and depression.

Nearly half (4 percent) of those interviewed stated that work arrangements contributed to ongoing health problems. Some 76 percent complained of stress-related problems, 7 percent of continual tiredness, 55 percent of headaches, while 51 percent suffered from depression. The health problems increased proportionally to the number of hours worked.

Excessive hours also caused safety problems. Over a quarter of interviewees reported that longer hours had contributed to accidents or near misses at work. The report concluded that 40 percent of work accidents may be due to human error caused by fatigue. Another survey estimated that 17 hours of sustained wakefulness�and such working hours are not uncommon�is the equivalent to having an unsafe blood alcohol level of 0.05 percent.

The ACTU’s role

In mounting its test case, the ACTU did everything possible to cover over the role that the unions have played in creating these conditions.

ACTU assistant secretary Richard Marles, who ran the ACTU’s case, claimed that the ruling would “reverse an obnoxious trend in play for the last 0 years,” during which “workers have lost control over their own lives as more and more time and energy was handed over to the boss with longer and longer hours and greater intensification of work”.

Workers did not simply “hand over” their time and conditions to employers. Marles’ reference to 0 years inadvertently points to the historical reversal in the social position of the working class that began with the election of the Labor government headed by former ACTU president Bob Hawke in 18.

Under Hawke’s Prices and Incomes Accord, the ACTU collaborated with the government to fundamentally restructure workplace relations to meet the demands of globally mobile capital. Year after year, hard-won protective conditions and job security were traded off. Central to this process was the enforcement of “flexibility,” particularly in working hours.

Even in dangerous industries such as underground mining, 1-hour shifts were imposed, the five-day working week was abolished and continuous, seven-day around-the-clock production was introduced. Penalty rates, which once acted as a limited deterrent to employers demanding excessive overtime, were either scrapped or severely cut back.

The record shows that the “obnoxious trend” of longer hours, with its escalating health and safety problems, and terrible impact on workers’ family and social life, did not fall from the sky. It is part of the legacy of decades of policing by the unions, in the interests of employers.

· Americans are working longer hours than ever. Between 16-18 the average American working year increased by 5 hours. In the following decade Americans continued to work more, with total work-year hours rising by an additional week.

· Working hours have increased more substantially for families. The combined annual work hours of prime-aged dual-earner couples rose from ,850 in 171 to ,450 in 188, an increase of 600 hours. An analysis of the Current Population Survey data on time use also found that working hours have increased more substantially for parents, and in particular single and young parents

· Adults should be able to attain a decent standard of living for their families on a reasonable number of hours of paid work. With only 4 hours in a day, it is not surprising that working parents who are working more hours to support their families financially while continuing to care for their children and other relatives are experiencing significant time pressures.

Shorter working hours do not increase employment

Shorter working hours do not lead to higher employment or better health. This is the conclusion of a report from the National Institute for Working Life.

The report, written by Jonas Bergström and Sofia Olofsdotter, is a summary of results of research on working hours. It was commissioned to be used as a basis by a working hours committee appointed by the Swedish Government Offices.

The report starts out on the basis that there are two ways of implementing reduced working hours retaining the same salary for employees � in practice an increase in the hourly rate of pay � or reducing salary.

According to the report, in order for a reduction in working hours to provide higher employment, stringent restrictions are required to ensure that the hourly rate of pay does not increase. Another precondition is the availability of a suitable labour force. Otherwise labour costs will be too high.

However, the report states that in the longer term the effects of shorter working hours tend to be insignificant or negative, due to a drop in total production. As unemployment is falling rapidly in Sweden and the lack of labour in increasing, the authors of the report believe that shorter working hours would actually reduce employment.

The report goes on to say that, when it comes to health, a reduction in working hours would probably benefit certain small groups with high workloads, but would result in little difference for the majority of workers. The impact on state transfer payment systems such as national health insurance and invalidity pensions is also likely to be small.

Increased equality between men and women is often cited as a reason for reducing working hours, but according to the National Institute of Working Life report it would be more effective if women were to increase their working hours, so that they worked the same hours as men. Women’s paid work affects their work in the home more than that of men women who work full-time spend much less time on housework than women who work part-time. The authors of the report argue that if men had shorter working hours, it is likely that housework would be more equally distributed, but if women increased their working hours, the effect on equality would be even greater - not because men would spend more time on housework, but because women would spend less time on it.

The report adds that reducing working hours could have a different impact if working hours were shortened through local agreements which take into account the production and organisation of individual workplaces.

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