2005 - Working Time Directive
The recent European Parliament
vote to remove the opt-out clause from the Working
Time Directive appears to have provoked an overwhelmingly
negative reaction in the UK.
The clause allows employees who
are content to work longer hours the right to
opt out of European Union restrictions imposing
a maximum 48-hour week.
The prospect of a compulsory
48-working week has caused some alarm in the UK.
Business and industry groups have been queuing
up to condemn a restricted working week variously
as an attack on civil liberties, an economic straight-jacket
and a restraint on trade.
Brendan Barber, general secretary
of the Trades Union Congress, writing in this
newspaper, has been almost a lone voice supporting
the 48-hour week. Long hours, he says, are often
down to poor management and an emphasis on time
spent at work rather than on getting jobs done.
This observation can not be repeated
enough. Forty-hours a week in an office, a shop
or on a production line should be enough for anyone.
A nine-to-five working day, with an hour for lunch
– traditional office hours - amounts to
a 35-hour working week. An 8 am to 6pm day amounts
to 45 hours over five days. These are long days
and there are still three hours to spare within
Thirty years ago, when I entered
the workforce, there was less of an expectation
among employers that people should work much more
than a forty-hour week. When longer hours were
needed, managers used to ask for volunteers with
the promise of overtime pay. Before leaving school
I worked regular Sundays, filling shelves in a
supermarket, for double the usual rate. This was
not a union agreement. It was the custom based
on employee expectations. In the rush towards
Christmas we worked all night for triple time.
When companies were paying those
kind of rates they wanted their pound of flesh
and they got it. We worked hard throughout the
shift. Today some jobs still require constant
application. But many office-based jobs have changed.
People come to the office and some work gets done.
Additionally there are the conversations around
the water cooler, the trips out to the shop, the
e-mails to friends, the web-searches for cheap
flights to Florida. A lot of this stuff is tolerated
because managers are doing the same. It helps
to make the long days bearable.
This time stacks up. Managers
don’t complain because people in the office
give them more flexibility – that’s
flexibility to be inefficient as Mr Barber suggested.
Long hours spent in the office are less to do
with productivity and far more to do with a cultural
Those who complain about the
48-hour week should be reminded that working ever
longer hours, a habit borrowed from the US, is
a reversal of historical trends. As Juliet Schor
pointed out in her book, The Overworked American,
up to the late 1940s in the US, for nearly a hundred
years, hours spent at work had been declining.
In fact during the 1930s Depression,
the US trade unions came within a whisker of achieving
a 30-hour week. Legislation was passed by the
Senate but President Roosevelt scrapped the idea
under pressure from employers. The employers believed
that a big reduction in the pool of unemployed
labour resulting from the reduction would increase
wage costs due to competition for workers.
Such attempts at social engineering
to avoid the curse of unemployment are seen as
misguided in today’s market economy where
broadening competition has led to greater demand
for jobs, particularly in the service sector and
emerging technologies. T the same time globalisation
has allowed more work to be sourced in cheaper
labour markets, leading to the off-shoring of
While most of us in the UK, these
days, work a 38 to 40 hour week, some 3.7m people
regularly work more than 48 hours a week, says
the TUC. Of these, it says, seven out of 10 would
like to work fewer hours. Funnily enough the same
proportion of businesses responding to a Confederation
of British Industry survey said that removal of
the opt-out would harm their businesses.
Employer bodies have always
opposed attempts to shorten working hours. But
are they overstating the potential damage that
could be caused by the directive? Surely its intention
is to stop the working week getting out of hand.
My own belief is that most objections have less
to do with a 48-hour week and more to do with
the removal of our right to work the hours we
This is understandable and might
even be viewed as reasonable were it not for the
fact that most people at work in the UK, according
to a TUC survey, have no idea that they are opting
out of the 48-hour week. Most have not even been
asked to sign their willingness to opt out. Perhaps
the emphasis should be changed to one of opting
in. This would be closer to the old arrangement
of managers asking for volunteers to work longer,
so long as people are adequately paid for doing
Not all employers, it should
be said, are eager for people to work excessive
hours. At Richer Sounds, the Hi-Fi retailer founded
by Julian Richer, employees are forced to go home
if they work beyond their allotted hours. Working
overtime or longer than a five-day week is regarded
as an exception rather than the rule.
Mr Richer believes it is a mistake
to equate working long hours with working hard.
In his book, The Richer Way, he says: “The
fault of many managers is that they don’t
know how well their staff are working. They couldn’t
tell you whether that person was doing a good
job or not – the only thing they see is
how long someone spends at their desk. That is
a really prehistoric way of managing.”
The US has the most competitive
workplaces in the world according the World Competitiveness
Yearbook, but much of this success is down to
a regime of far longer hours than anything worked
in Europe. A survey released last week by Hudson,
the US staffing company, found that nearly one
in four US workers taking time off in the summer
would check-in with their workplace most days
while on holiday. Work is eating people’s
lives. What should be seen as a social good, too
often has become a social disease. We overwork
in the same way that we overeat and over-consume
in our unbalanced lives. Super-sizing is as much
to do with the workplace as it has hamburgers.
That said, I cannot see how
restrictions on the working week could be enforced
among those in the executive class who understand
the unwritten rules that link promotion to availability.
Will they log every minute on the Blackberry?
Of course not. And what about international flights?
Should they be considered down time or work time?
What about reading a newspaper. Is that work?
I don’t want restrictions.
But I would have more sympathy with employer bodies
if they did more to promote real productivity,
than persist with this sham of linking good work
with hours. Bad practices sometimes result in