ACTU argues for reasonable work hours
by Bob Briton Heated debate continues around the ACTU's Reasonable Hours Case currently before the Australian Industrial Relations Commission (AIRC). The case is being heard 55 years after the ACTU first brought arguments before the Commonwealth Court for a 44-hour week, which finally came into force in 1948. The current case should be an historic occasion, focussed on the next long overdue step in improving living standards, increasing leisure hours and generally sharing the benefits of labour saving technologies. However, because of a major shift in the balance of forces in favour of the bosses, the ACTU's arguments are centred instead around the conditions of the 2.4 million Australians now working more than 45 hours a week and on how to bring them some modest measure of relief. The ACTU is fighting stiff opposition to its efforts on behalf of the workers represented by the astounding figures contained in the Fifty Families Report commissioned by the ACTU and conducted by researchers from the University of Sydney and the University of Adelaide. That report found that Australia has the longest working hours of any industrialised country except South Korea. Between 1981 and 2000, there has been a 76 percent increase in the number of people working more than 45 hours a week and a 94 percent jump in those working 50 to 59 hours a week. A feature of the long hours now worked is the amount of unpaid overtime. It is small wonder that the bosses, represented by the Federal and State Governments and organisations like the Australian Chamber of Commerce and the Australian Industry Group are pulling out all the stops to defend the status quo. The fact is that 60 per cent of the overtime worked in Australia is unpaid, i.e. a straight theft from the workers of money that should be used to maintain themselves and their families but which goes into the bosses' pockets instead. Adelaide University researcher Barbara Pocock gave evidence before the AIRC last week about the human cost of unreasonable work hours, about the loss of contact with the community and the breakdown of relationships in the household. Long working hours are also linked to a higher risk of heart disease and worsen problems such as diabetes, epilepsy, hypertension, asthma and digestive ailments. You would imagine, in light of this demonstrable deterioration in the conditions of work relating to hours, that ACTU representatives like Richard Marles would have little difficulty presenting what amounts to an open and shut case. The ACTU's modest claims are limited to an agreement around definitions of what constitutes "reasonable hours of work" and the various factors that impact on that definition and a concession that people working longer than 48 hours per week for three months be given two days off. The two days would have to be taken and could not be accrued. The ACTU is not proposing a reduction of hours to 35 per week. Not that this would have been such an outlandish claim in view of the fact that France has already introduced the measure. It is not an unheard of claim in Australia, either. A 35-hour week was the object of a number of shorter hours campaigns during the 1970s and 1980s. However, in a series of statements that have been given ample coverage in the media, Government and business sources have gone on the offensive accusing the trade union movement of being out of touch with workers, limiting "choice" and trying to apply the dreaded "one-size-fits-all" solutions to the problem. Australian Industry Group chief executive Bob Herbert claims that responses from employees to a survey conducted by this bosses' organisation show that workers don't mind working overtime. In fact they want it in order to support the lifestyles they have chosen. Those nasty old trade unions want to stand between their members and their much loved extra hours! Missing from this sort of argument is the possibility that workers "choose" to work paid overtime in order to keep afloat, to maintain material standards as their disposable income and purchasing power decline. It also avoids the question of the masses of unpaid over time (profits) worked in the economy — and we're not just talking about executives and administrators here. Do workers really choose to do this! Employers are also saying that they can't imagine how individual workplaces would incorporate the two days' leave being proposed by the ACTU for overworked employees. They are publicly threatening that it would increase the casualisation currently occurring in industry. So it seems that a rather unambitious measure to assist those who currently work hours that are illegal in the European Community is beyond the capacity of the economy! Apparently, it's no longer possible to set lower limits for basic conditions of work such as the hours to be worked. Such are the bosses' arguments in the year 2001. These arguments have a familiar ring. They were around when the working day was reduced from 16 to 12 hours and from 12 hours to eight and yet industry survived. Debate around the ACTU's case is likely to continue into the new year. Pressure from the organised labour movement will have to be maintained so that even those modest demands are met. Just as an aside, we would do well to remember the last Standard Hours Inquiry of 1946/1947. In the judgement handed down, the Commonwealth Court commented that the 40-hour week being agreed to would have to be the last reduction in working hours for some time. Because of the demands of post- war reconstruction there was a labour shortage at the time. The Court declared that a further reduction could only be considered in conditions of sustained unemployment. It is entirely predictable that now that we have conditions of sustained, high and systemic unemployment that the goal posts have been moved again!