To the ‘low-wage, low-spend, low-tax, low-service economy’ we can now add another prefix – ‘low-leave’. That’s the conclusion of the European Industrial Relations Observatory report on working time. * The detailed report on all aspects of working time – weekly and annual working hours, holidays, annual leave, etc. – summarised our predicament:
. . . countries with notably low leave encompass Latvia, Hungary and Ireland.
It’s bad enough that we live in an economy that doesn’t spend enough to provide proper services and social supports compared to the rest of the EU-15. Now we aren’t even allowed time off to reflect on how we might turn this thing around.
Essentially we work on average nearly three weeks more per year than employees in other EU-15 countries – through a combination of fewer holidays and annual leave, and a longer working week.
Given our average 39 hour working week – we work 2.7 weeks more than the other EU-15 average and 1.4 weeks longer than the average for all other EU countries (though the CSO records male industrial workers putting in 41+ hours per week). We have the 10th highest working time in the EU-27 and only Greek employees work longer in the EU-15.
In the last election we were bombarded from every political party about ‘hard-working families’. What great imagery: a couple with small children clinging to the mother’s long skirt, working in the sweatshop that is Ireland PLC., keeping the wolves at bay, dreaming of a free frontier.
Now maybe I run in strange circles but the last thing any of my friends want to do is work hard. They’re quite vociferous on this point. They want to work less, make more money and have more time with their families; they want more time to take scuba-diving lessons, travel in Asia, follow their football team to away matches, or just chill with some good wine and important tunes. If they want to work hard, the last place they want to do it is in the job except for the lucky few whose 'job' and meaningful 'work' coincide.
But in just about every sector people don’t have the time. Ireland ranks 2nd in terms of average collectively agreed working hours per week. And we are in the upper tier in regards to the maximum statutory working week. There are two tiers in the EU:
- Those countries that operate a maximum 48-hour working week (16 countries which includes Ireland), and
- Those countries that operate a maximum 40-hour working week (11 countries though Belgium has a 38-hour maximum working week)
But in regards to maximum statutory working day we’re much worse. At 13 hours per day, we are among the top five (the EU average is 10, with 11 countries having a statutory working day of 8 hours. Not only do we work longer working weeks with one of the laxest statutory regimes in the EU, Irish workers lose out on total leave as expressed in paid holidays and annual paid leave.
Compared to other EU-15 workers, the Irish get about six days less holiday and annual leave (compared to Sweden we get nearly 2 ½ weeks less – and we know how poor and backward the Swedish economy is).
Turning this around would be relatively easy – we would just adopt best European practice. This would mean:
- Adopting a statutory weekly maximum of 40 hours work and reducing the statutory daily maximum from its high of 13 hours
- Additional paid Bank Holidays
- Increase the statutory paid annual leave from 20 to 25 days.
In addition, we could also address the overtime situation. The report quotes CSO figures showing that 10% of employees worked overtime but 43% reported they were not paid (rising to 52% among women employees). If people have to work overtime, the least we can do is ensure they are paid.
Of course, employers' organisations will wail on about loss of productivity, output and labour costs. While this issue will need more exploring in a further post it is highly debatable that a reduction in working time would necessarily result in a loss of productivity and output. The whole area is stacked with academic and consultancy studies showing that towards the end of the working day, towards the end of the working week, productivity declines. This shouldn’t be particularly surprising. We aren’t, after all, machines. As William Faulkner put it:
It’s a shame that the only thing a man can do for eight hours a day is work. He can’t eat for eight hours a day; he can’t drink for eight hours a day; he can’t make love for eight hours a day. The only thing a man can do for eight hours is work.
Or, in many cases, be in our workplaces for eight hours. The managerial organisation of work leaves much to be desired. Microsoft launched an, admittedly, unscientific survey of workplace practices and productivity. 38,000 people from 200 countries responded to a detailed questionnaire:
- People work an average of 45 hours a week; they consider about 17 of those hours to be unproductive
- People spend 5.6 hours each week in meetings; 69% feel meetings aren't productive
- 60% said they don't have work-life balance, and being unproductive contributes to this feeling
- The most common productivity pitfalls are unclear objectives, lack of team communication and ineffective meetings (32%), unclear priorities (31%), and procrastination (29%)
Now one has to be careful about using these results. It was an unscientific, subjective survey and Microsoft’s purpose was to shill for its products. But in workplaces throughout the world, more efficient workplace organisation would mean the same level of output but with less hours of ‘work’ (of course employers will pocket the productivity and keep their staff working – they gain, workers lose, if not in income, then certainly in time).
One of the first rationales of workers organising themselves into trade unions was to reduce the long working week. Some of the first struggles were to get Saturday afternoon off. The fight over leave continues, albeit from a much better base (except maybe for those over-worked who have to commute over an hour to work every day).
So let’s drop all that ‘hard-working family’ nonsense – which was put to its best effect by the US Republican party under Newt Gingrich when they took over Congress in the mid-1990s. The Left should go one better – for hard-working families we should campaign for less time at work, however that may be expressed in annual hours (working week, public holidays, paid leave, etc.). Labour's Ruari Quinn, TD made a good start.
For the simple truth is that people want to work productively and earn a good income; they want public services, and social protection in times of need. And, just as importantly, they want more time for themselves.
The last thing they want to be is a hard-working family.
* Currently, the link to the report is not working but it can be found on the right-hand page of the website's homepage.