Review of ‘The Future of Working Time – a 4 day week?’ May 2019 at the Trade Union Congress.
Speakers at this TUC/NEF-sponsored meeting deplored the race to the bottom that has shifted the balance of forces in society against workers in the UK. This is evident in the intensification of long hours (42.3hrs average, the highest in Europe). The UK also has the shortest holidays in Europe and the fastest planned rise in state pension age. Flexibility in hours has mainly served employers’ interests, not those of workers; exploitative zero hour contracts and other forms of contract (for instance, those dubbed ‘slaveroo’) enable employers to escape their responsibilities. Employers have confiscated tips, charged workers for uniforms, and insisted on women wearing short skirts and high heels. The conference agreed that labour must reassert itself and trade unions must educate workers as to their rights. Examples showed how we can win better conditions.
In the last 40 years the wages share of GDP has dropped from 65% to 49%. Productivity in the UK is relatively low; long hours and insecurity contribute to this, partly due to the prevalence of stress sickness. Long hours are particularly pernicious in reinforcing the gender gap in pay and pensions, since those with caring roles are unable to manage long hours, often forcing them to take low paid local jobs.
A New Deal for workers is required, including shorter weekly hours, such as a four day week. TUs must support this, reversing the trend to increasingly stressful, intensified work, asserting ‘time sovereignty’ as a human right, and forcing a change in the balance of power in the workplace.
Comment. The theme of the conference echoed the arguments of Standing (2019) that a Universal Basic Income would help rebalance power towards workers, making it more feasible to refuse poor conditions and low pay, and to combat chronic insecurity, precarity and the ‘pandemic of stress and ill-health’. It would allow workers to refuse ‘bullshit jobs’ (Graeber 2019) that are socially harmful or merely useless, allowing more opportunities for community engagement, education, leisure, and self-provisioning. It would also rebalance power in households, providing an independent source of income for those whose caring work restricts employment.
Standing, G. (2019) Basic Income as Common Dividends: Piloting a transformative policy. A report for the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, London: Progressive Economy Forum.
Graeber, D. (2019) Bullshit Jobs: The Rise of Pointless Work, and What We Can Do About It, Penguin Books.