Message-Id: <>
Date: Tue, 17 Dec 96 17:53:46 CST
Organization: PACH
Subject: Working Hours-The Long & Short Of It
Article: 2490

/** headlines: 135.0 **/
** Topic: Working Hours-The Long & Short Of It **
** Written 4:11 PM Dec 16, 1996 by josue in cdp:headlines **
/* Written 9:00 PM Dec 15, 1996 by in */
/* ---------- Working Hours-The Long & Short Of I ---------- */

From: Institute for Global Communications <>
Subject: Working Hours-The Long & Short Of It

/* Written 3:13 PM Dec 8, 1996 by peg:greenleft in */
Title: Working hours—the long and the short of it

Working hours—the long and the short of it

By Gaetano Greco and Lorella Di Pietro, Green Left News, 8 December 1996

The secretary of the ACTU, Bill Kelty, has finally come around to the idea of shorter working hours as a means of reducing unemployment. It's about time. In the past decade the ACTU has not been willing even to consider the seemingly taboo subject as a serious industrial and political option.

Instead, during the life of the ALP Accord it chose the path of labour market programs, striving for economic growth and industry/award restructuring—strategies which failed to adequately reduce unemployment. The present Coalition government is even more blinkered in its approach to unemployment, further deregulating industrial relations and the labour market.

Fortunately, it is expected that unions will debate the issue of shorter working hours at the next ACTU congress. We should welcome the opportunity. However, unions need to carefully unpack what Kelty means by planning to make the fairer sharing of work opportunities a primary goal of the ACTU in 1997.

Currently, shorter working hours for many workers have meant flexible hours, i.e. job sharing, purchased leave arrangements, part-time or casual hours, contract work and on-call work, all with reduced conditions and less pay. This labour flexibility has come as a windfall for employers under the guise of meeting the needs of workers' varied lifestyles. In reality, employment has become more precarious, especially for women and migrants.

Simultaneously, over the past decade post-fordists have discussed the possibility of humanising work by making it less alienating through training, multi-skilling and greater worker participation. Trade unions took on this vision to greater or lesser degrees and with differing levels of success.

However, whilst this has improved the working life of core workers (full time, permanent and well paid), it has been to the detriment of the emerging peripheral workers (casuals, contract, part time and low paid). The latter category has expanded, leaving many women and migrants more and more subject to precarious work and unemployment, whilst the former are even working overtime. What is the point of creating more McJobs which cannot provide a living wage or a future?

The concurrent effect has been to leave the trade union movement with a diminishing membership, given the difficulty of organising the peripheral work force. At the same time, we are seeing a general shift away from trade union values by core workers who have been successfully wooed to a commitment to company values with the promise of job security in a precarious and shrinking labour market. Increasingly, these workers no longer see themselves as belonging to a collective but as individual entrepreneurs.

The current economic orthodoxy of job creation through economic growth is no longer relevant. New technologies are destroying more jobs than they create. The current drive for efficiency and productivity improvements is mainly occurring through labour shedding, putting unions on the defensive in their attempts to resist or manage the introduction of new technology. Many trade unions are now locked into a logic of continuous productivity—which allows increased profits to flow to employers and limited pay increases to flow to workers.

This is all at the expense of real jobs. Instead of trying to stop these productivity improvements brought about by new technologies or kidding ourselves that we are managing technological change without detrimental effects on jobs and workers, why not reduce the hours people work in order to save and possibly create jobs (i.e. we all work less with the same pay so that more people can work)?

This strategy to revitalise unions and fight new battles relevant to workers in the '90s has been put on the agenda in a number of European countries by their union movements. They have been debating and in some instances are experimenting with different forms of shorter working hours with no loss of pay. Unions are linking increases in productivity gains as a trade-off for a reduction to working hours.

The unions have been at the forefront of promoting strategies to combat unemployment, whose levels and durability are now chronic. This strategy is anchored in addressing the unemployment reality and its social costs. It also opens up the possibility of questioning the dominance of paid work in people's lives.

The countries forming part of the Maastricht agreement have agreed to place an upper limit of 48 hours on the working week in order to ensure that jobs do not become restricted to a contracting pool of workers. Whilst this is by no means an answer to Europe's unemployment problems, it signals a recognition by governments that jobs are contracting.

This alternative vision is not limited to the strategy of sharing available paid work. Currently, Australia has one of the highest gender-segregated work forces in the world, with women constituting the majority of part-time workers. The introduction of shorter working hours without loss of pay could give greater access to women to secure full-time employment.

Simultaneously, it has the potential to undermine the existing division of labour between men and women—the latter bearing the greater load as the main carers in a family situation. This would lead to an unprecedented redistribution of the hours of reproductive or so-called non-productive work between genders.

Such an approach to shorter working hours directly impacts on the quality of life of working people. It also sets the agenda for addressing the now unfashionable value of class solidarity amongst workers by bringing together the interests of workers who are currently in competition with one another.

Australia's gross domestic product has more than doubled in the past 15 years, yet we have high levels of unemployment and an increasing pool of precarious employment. Who is benefiting from this increased wealth? Surely an equitable redistribution of work with no reduction in pay and working conditions is a relevant way of redistributing wealth and maintaining social stability?

Reducing working hours is an industrial and political project. It could make the trade union a legitimate spokesperson to promote broader societal issues and a movement at the centre of a broad alliance with other social forces which are also committed to wealth redistribution, rather than the forced community action in which the union movement tacks itself onto single issues.

Historically, trade unions centred their struggle on improving workers' quality of life by reducing working hours. Victorian trade unions could take the lead as they have done in the past with the proud 1856 eight-hour day movement (an international first) and the more recent 35-hour week campaign of the late '70s.

Why not a 30-hour movement to take us into the 21st century? This could capture people's imagination, both employed and unemployed, and put the union movement on the offensive.