Wednesday, August 6, 2003

Unreasonable hours: Why we work longer and harder

Chris Latham
On July 11, Workplace Standards Tasmania delivered a notice to Tasmanian mining companies, directing them to end their dangerous work patterns. The problem was not equipment or training, it was working hours so long that workers’ lives were endangered. This is just the extreme tip of a general trend: most Australians are now working longer and harder.

The notice was a response to the “Struggle for Time” report prepared by the Australian Centre for Industrial Relations Research and Training (ACIRRT), in collaboration with the Centre for Sleep Research. The report found that workers in the Tasmanian mining industry work, on average, between 42 and 56 hours per week, with some working as many as 70 hours in a week.

Since the 1980s, the proportion of all employees working more than 40 hours a week has increased from 31.0% in 1998 to 37.4% in 2001. In 2000, 2.2 million workers — almost half of all full-time workers — worked more than 40 hours. The average weekly hours worked by full-time workers has increased from 38.2 in 1982 to 41.3 in 2001.

At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of workers in Australia who are employed on a part-time basis. Between 1981 and 2000, the proportion of workers working less than 35 hours a week increased from 16% to 26%.

Working longer hours greatly increases the likelihood of fatigue. High levels of fatigue have similar effects on concentration and coordination as high blood-alcohol levels.

This is often exacerbated by other factors. Manual work tends to be more fatiguing, and lack of proper sleep means workers get more fatigued, faster. Humans sleep more easily at night than during the day. Added to this, we get fatigued faster at particular times, especially between 2am and 7am. Longer working shifts also often adds to stress, because of the reduced time available for everything else.

This means that the extended periods of night shift that are increasingly common in manual jobs, such as in the mining, manufacturing and maritime industries, are making worker fatigue much worse.

In a review of different shift rosters in the Tasmanian mining industry, Sally Ferguson from the Centre for Sleep Research found that at some sites workers would have been experiencing dangerously high fatigue by the second shift of their roster, and that in the majority of rosters there were periods where it could be expected that the work force would be highly fatigued.

Whose fault?
It is often assumed that working hours are getting longer because workers want higher wages. However, it is wrong to place responsibility for longer hours with working people. Overtime is necessary because employers do not hire sufficient workers to get the work done in standard hours. It is easier, and, as overtime payments are wound back, increasingly cheaper, to employ existing workers for longer hours.

While many workers do rely on overtime to ensure a liveable wage, for many workers this is not the reason they “choose” to work such long hours. For mine workers, the standard hours of work — which include shifts of between 10.5 and 12 hours — are already excessive, with overtime pushing working time up to peaks of 70 hours in a single week.

In its “Reasonable Hours” submission to the Australian Industrial Relations Commission, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) estimated that, in 2000, only 38.4% of those workers regularly working overtime received overtime payments, down from 40.1% in 1993.

Of the remaining 61.6%, 21.2% had overtime factored in to their salary package, 5.2% could take time off in lieu and a staggering 33.5% simply did unpaid overtime. Unpaid overtime is more prevalent among women workers.

In 2002, employers attempted to vary awards for ACT retail workers, and for Victorian clerical staff, to increase the standard working week to 39 hours, including one hour of overtime and incorporating this into the weekly wage. Additional overtime would not be paid until the end of the year, when total overtime hours worked (including the standard one hour a week) would be tabulated. If the total came to more than 48 hours, then this additional time would be paid as a lump sum.

Work rich, work poor
The trend towards longer working hours may be masking some of the impact of falling real wages, which is felt not by those who are working too much, but by those who are working too little.

The average adult weekly wage (before tax) of all workers in 2002 was $702.50, $229 less than the average of full-time workers. For women, the average wage was $550.10, $259.40 less than the average of women working full-time. This huge gap reflects that increasingly women have either low pay and part-time work or more pay but with ever longer hours. As a framework for deciding how to balance work and family, this “choice” sucks.

The ACTU claim for reasonable working hours began before the Australian Industrial Relations Commission in 2001, and the decision was handed down on July 22.

The ACTU had requested the setting of reasonable hours of work; reasonable overtime; and paid breaks after extreme working hours. If the test case was granted, these could be inserted into awards where appropriate.

While in many countries, excessive working hours, often defined at 70 hours a week, are illegal, the ACTU did not request this. Instead, it argued that employers should be forced to provide workers who work excessive hours with sufficent paid time off to recuperate.

The commission rejected this, pointing out that it was inconsistent to argue that these hours were dangerous and then ask for provisions to be made for working them. It also argued that this may “reward” workers who worked excessive hours. It did not, however, make such hours illegal.

The commission did rule that workers had the right to refuse overtime on several grounds, including a risk to health or safety due to an excessive number of working hours, personal circumstances including family responsibilities, lack of adequate notice from the employer and an inadequate need for the work.

However, while a step forward, the decision still places the onus on workers to prove that overtime is unreasonable, and relies on assertive, confident workers.

An alternative approach to reducing hours is included in the enterprise agreement for Australian Workers Union maintenance workers at the Kwinana BP oil refinery in WA.

In this agreement, adopted in July, the workers have reinforced their 35-hour work week with a 32% wage rise over the next 3.5 years. The workers also won the a provision that requires the company to hire more workers if the average overtime worked by workers is greater than 12 hours per year, per worker.

While the circumstances of the oil industry, with its high profits and stable working conditions, made this a good place for a test case, this sort of example is a good one. It will take struggle on the ground to reverse the trend of bosses making workers work longer and harder to survive.

Originally published in Green Left Weekly #548


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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