WORK: by News WeeklyNews Weekly
Longer working hours: unions ignore developing social crisis
, April 8, 2000
A recent study of the Australian workforce has shown that, while many have been pushed into part-time work and many job-seekers cannot find work, the main outcome of the decline of the standard working week over the past decade and a half has been a shift to longer working hours. This is a process that appears to have accompanied the deregulation of wages and conditions, and greater workforce flexibility, in Australia over recent years.
Writing in People and Place, January 2000, Dr Ernest Healy of Monash University's Centre for Population and Urban Research, described the shift to long working hours as "a social and political crisis in the making".
After examining the Australian Bureau of Statistics' quarterly ABS Labour Force Survey, he said:
"During the period 1986-87 to 1998-99, the proportion of the labour force working long hours (45+) increased far more than the proportion working fewer than 35 hours. This trend was particularly marked for older men, and to a lesser degree for older married women.
"In 1998-99, more than 47 per cent of men in the labour force aged 45-54 worked for longer than the standard working week, compared to just under 36 per cent in 1986-87."
The cause of this major change, he suggested, were changes in the structure of the Australian labour market over the past twenty years, in particular, greater workforce flexibility.
This flexibility was a consequence of labour market deregulation.
A disturbing aspect of this shift is that it appears to have been driven by employers pushing for higher output.
He remarked caustically:
"The 1980s and early 1990s were characterised by a good deal of misleading rhetoric, much of it emanating from the labour movement, concerning the emancipatory potential of 'flexible' work place arrangements, including hours of work.
"It was often asserted that people would have a greater choice concerning hours of work, and in balancing work commitments with family and other responsibilities."
"While it is now more frequently recognised that part-time workers often desire more work, it is still not sufficiently recognised that the trend to long hours may be, for many workers, involuntary even coercive.
"The extent to which full-time Australian workers are either contented or discontented with the weekly hours they work was explored in a 1998 survey conducted by the ABS.
"The survey found that 27 per cent of full-time workers would prefer to work fewer hours. Although the survey did not distinguish between those working the standard working week and those working long hours, given the data considered above, it may be concluded that a high proportion of those wanting fewer hours were working long hours."
After looking at the figures showing that older workers are often forced out of the workforce, he suggested that
"Many older men, knowing full well the plight of others similar to themselves, may feel they have no choice but to endure employer demands for very long hours at work.
"A further round of deregulation and rapid economic restructuring might further exacerbate this situation."
Dr Healy pointed to the paradox of growing distortions in the work patterns of male employees, with growing levels of part-time work, a substantial decline in the number of full-time employees working standard hours, and a 7 per cent rise in the number of men working more than 45 hours a week.
The trend among married women was less pronounced, but again there was a substantial 4 per cent increase in the number of married women working more than 45 hours a week.
For young men and women, the trend is towards a dramatic decline in weekly hours worked, reflecting a shift towards casual and part-time work, instead of full-time employment.
This shift must be reflected in declining income-earning potential, with destabilising effects on young families, and the willingness of two-income families to have children, which necessitates, for most, a reduction in household income.
Dr Healy further pointed to the strange situation that at the same time more employees are working very long hours (above 45 a week), some unions are currently serving ambit logs for a reduction in standard working hours.
In the building and construction industries, the union log of claims which includes a reduction in the working week from 38 to 36 hours has led to a spate of strikes and lockouts in Victoria.
Yet this is an industry which is characterised by a high proportion of employees working above 45 hours a week!
He observed that:
"Current demands for a reduced standard working week by many unions bear little relationship to the view of worker interests historically associated with demands for a shorter working week, [which] were linked with improved quality of life for workers and the community as a whole, made possible through a working week which provided material well-being for workers and their families, and for a fair division of time between work, sleep and recreation."
The current union campaign, in practice, amounts to nothing more than "a demand for an hour or two extra overtime payment with little or no regard for actual hours worked, or for the associated social impact of hours worked."
Dr Healy concluded by suggesting that any reductions in the standard working week should be linked with restrictions on the actual hours worked by full-time employees, and more full-time jobs for the unemployed and under-employed.