In the 1980s we were told that the 35 hour week, or even the 30 hour week, would be upon us by the end of the century, with greater leisure time to pursue our own interests. In fact the average working week in Britain rose during the 1980s and is now 43.4 hours compared with the European average of 40.3 hours.
The recent argument between John Major and the European Union centres on an EU directive, due to be implemented by the end of November, which attempts to improve health and safety at work by establishing European standards on working hours and holiday entitlement. A recent decision by the European Court confirmed the legislation as one of health and safety rather than social legislation and so it cannot be vetoed by the Tories.
All the studies show that long working hours increase accidents at work and cause stress related illnesses. A California study in 1960 found that men who work more than 48 hours a week have twice the rate of coronary heart disease of the rest of the population.
A 1995 MSF union survey of 412 private and public workplaces found that 60 percent of workers were suffering from stress, and over half (56 percent) said that workplace stress levels were much higher than they were five years ago. These findings are consistent with an occupational stress survey among CPSA members in Liverpool. The survey, which covered every office of the Benefits Agency in Liverpool, found that three quarters had suffered headaches at work, 65 percent suffered sleeplessness and 50 percent suffered depression. Medical experts including Professor John Harrington from Birmingham University and Professor Simon Folkard from Swansea University agree that working more than 48 hours a week has serious health and safety implications.
But for all John Major's protests, the EU directive is not as anti-business as it at first appears. It does set the working week, including overtime, at a maximum of 48 hours and it does set a minimum of three weeks annual paid leave immediately, rising to four weeks in 1999. But there are major exceptions. It does not include those working in the following industries: air, transport, road, sea, inland waterway, sea fishing and doctors in training. Many of these workers, such as coach and bus drivers or rail workers, are the most in need of shorter hours and proper rest time. It also allows working hours to be extended beyond the limit if employer and worker agree. As the TUC states:
`There is little doubt that a threat of potential redundancy or the denial of promotion opportunities will be sufficient to "persuade" workers to accede to an employer's demands... In the absence of some collectively bargained safeguards workers will continue to be at the mercy of unscrupulous employers.'
In recent years British workers have experienced a dramatic increase in working hours. In 1996 there were 3.9 million people working more than 48 hours compared with 2.7 million in 1984 an increase of 41 percent. The majority of those working very long hours are men 3.2 million (or 30 percent of all full time male employees) in 1996 compared with 2.4 million in 1984. But although there are less women working long hours than men, the rate of increase for women has been considerably sharper from 6 percent of women full time employees in 1984 to 11 percent in 1996. This represents an increase of 83 percent.
There has been a decline in the proportion of people working the `normal' 35 to 40 hour week. The working week is now shifting away from 35 hours to one where long hours are increasingly common. Part of the reason for this is the wave of legislation passed by the Tories. In 1993 the Wages Councils were abolished. These used to set hours of work and holidays for large groups of workers. And the 1989 Employment Act removed controls on the working time of young people aged 16-17. Now Britain is the only country in the EU that does not have a statutory or agreed limit on working time. As a result long working hours are much more common in Britain than in the rest of the EU.
Historically long working hours have been associated with manual workers who rely on overtime payments to boost their low rates of pay and this is still the case today. But more recently low grade white collar workers have also been forced to work longer as the government and employers try and squeeze greater profits from all sectors of the workforce. The result is a spread of the sort of stress traditionally experienced by manual workers to new groups.
Britain is also the only country in the EU whose workers have no legal right to paid annual leave. In every other country, except Italy, employees are entitled by law to at least three weeks paid holiday. In Italy there is a constitutional right to a holiday but the number of days is left to collective bargaining.
There are wide variations in paid annual leave in Britain and a substantial minority of workers have no holiday entitlement at all. Almost 2.5 million employees, 12 percent of the workforce, have no paid holiday leave. One in five employees 4.1 million workers receive less than three weeks holiday per year, and 5.9 million, or 28 percent, less than four weeks. Most of those with no holiday rights are part time workers. Over one in three part timers some 1.8 million people, of which 1.4 million are women have no paid annual leave. This includes all those who work up to 30 hours a week, and over half of all temporary workers do not receive any paid annual holiday.
Over 1 million women on permanent contracts receive no annual leave. This group overlaps with the 1.4 million part time women receiving no holiday, implying that many women workers are employed on permanent contracts which give them no holiday rights at all. Women are also concentrated in those industries such as catering, distribution and hotels which impose long hours, poor pay and lack of holidays. They also face discrimination because many workplaces give holiday leave dependent on length of service many women lose this when they have time off to have children.
Thus if the EU directive becomes law it will at least allow some workers legal means to test the limits to which they are pushed, and thousands a legal right to paid holiday.
However, a future Blair government will not implement such changes in the face of bosses' opposition unless pushed. The key to a shorter working week, less stress at work, more holidays and better pay remains grass roots organisation. Where workers are organised and where trade union strength is strong, the bosses are less confident to shift the burden of capitalism's problems onto the working class. Trade union members are significantly more likely to receive paid holidays than non trade union members. And those who work in large firms which traditionally have a much higher level of union organisation receive longer holidays than those who work in small firms. Workers' resistance and trade union organisation are the most powerful line of workers' defence.