Dead Men Left

Monday, May 16, 2005

Working hours and the "Brown miracle"

The decision to scrap the UK's opt-out from the European working time directive is unreservedly good news. Naturally, there is a certain amount of cant from predictable quarters - the CBI and the Liberal Democrats - about ending "freedom of choice" for employees: as if tens of thousands of disappointed workers in Britain will be tearfully begging their managers to, please, just let them stay a few hours longer this Friday. Leaving aside the political questions, and the sudden desire amongst Labour MEPs to stick two fingers up at Blair (from the comfortable distance of Brussels), the so-called "long hours culture" in Britain is a strange beast. The distribution of working hours reveals quite a bit about the state of the UK economy more generally. Lenin here exploring the vexed question of English peculiarities - a post I intend to return to - the amount of time we spend in our offices and factories has much to do with the very specific form of neoliberalism the UK has enjoyed for the last 25 years. It marks Britain as a land apart from other, broadly similar economies.

Compared to other European countries, UK workers labour for longer. Some 40% of all workers in Britain have usual working weeks longer than 40 hours, compared to around 20% across France, Denmark and Sweden. The average working week for full-time employees in the UK is 44 hours, four hours longer than the EU average. (Labour Trends March 2004: 116-117) Longer hours in the UK have been squarely linked to the reduction in trade union presence in workplaces, with the removal of collective bargaining allowing employers to "flexibly" demand greater efforts. [J.Kodz, "Working long hours: a review of the evidence", Employment Relations Research Series 16:1 (2003)] We should consider, therefore, that the greater drive towards "flexibilisation", seen in the dismantling of employment protection and collective bargaining and the creation of a large, "permanently insecure" labour force, is significantly responsible for the UK's long working hours.

The impact is not even across sectors: 34% of those employed in "services" work longer than 40 hours a week, whilst the same proportion worked less than 30 hours a week. The pattern of evenly-spread working hours is quite distinct from those in other sectors: 58% of those in agriculture and fishing, and 51% in industry, worked more than 40 hours a week, whilst only 18% in agriculture and fishing, and a mere 7% in industry worked less than 30 hours per week. Looking across Europe to France, Sweden and Denmark, longer hours are common in agriculture and fishing, but only an average of 12% in industry in these three countries usually work longer than 40 hours a week. The distribution of hours is much less spread out: everyone in manufacturing in these three countries works about the same length of time each week. (Labour Trends, March 2004: Table 3)

The burden of flexibilisation, then, for excessively long hours in the UK seems to have fallen largely on industrial workers, leaving patterns in services and other sectors unchanged relative to typical Western European practices. However, the presence of low-paid, insecure workers, most often in regions of high manufacturing employment, has acted as a further compulsion on manufacturing work. This pressure has not appeared as "insecurity" as such, detectable in nonstandard contracting and the absence of employment protection, but in hours worked. This may be attributable to the relatively high productivity per hour of British manufacturing workers (PDF) - compared to those in services - and a resulting unwillingness for firms to lose skilled workers: with workers gaining firm-specific skills on the job, employers are unwilling to substitute any trained and experienced worker for one fresh from the labour market.

But the threats of unemployment and insecure services employment remain to discipline the workforce, enabling long hours to be squeezed from workers. The result is that whilst those employed in manufacturing industry are less likely to be receiving low pay, they will generally have to work longer than their British counterparts in the service sector, or relative to those doing the same jobs across Europe. This higher productivity across sectors within the UK is combined with a relatively larger gap between UK manufacturing productivity and that of comparable economies, increasing competitive pressure on employers to squeeze greater output through longer hours.

A permanent solution to long hours in Britain will be found where it has always been lurking: through improving investment. The Blair government arrived, in 1997, with plenty of grand schemes for finally addressing years of chronic underinvestment in basic infrastructure. Many of them, like the schemes to encourage longer-term capital investment, were heavily influenced by Will Hutton's seminal denunciation of "short-termism" (and much else) in his 1994 The State We're In. A decade later, and eight years after Blair's entrance to Number 10, and it is quite clear they have not worked. Private investment remains low (PDF), with recent improvements in public investment contributing little thus far; much of the increased expenditure has been needlessly wasted through the ludicrous Private Finance Initiative. Research and development expenditure has been creeping along for some years now, siginifcantly behind other European economies and the US. Imprecations against short-termism have floundered on the encouragement of a speculative housing bubble, skyrocketing consumer debt and persistently negative national savings. The "Brown miracle"? Hardly.