The Guardian December 5, 2001


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!

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