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From: The Socialist issue 393, 19 May 2005: Public health not private profit

Search site for keywords: 35-hour week - Pay

The curse of long working hours

THE HYPOCRISY of the government and the bosses reached new depths last week. They went into full outrage mode against the European Parliament's decision to eliminate Britain's right to opt out of the 48-hour maximum working week.

Bill Mullins

This rule has been in operation since 1993 but successive British governments, acting on behalf of big business, have stopped even its limited effect on the long hours that many workers are forced to work.

As an ironic letter in The Independent puts it: "How dare Brussels stop us working 96 hours a week for a pittance?" The writer was referring to the bosses' argument that Britain and Europe need to compete with India and China where, as one business correspondent wrote, "workers often work twice as long for a fraction of the pay".

It makes the blood boil that industry fats cats and their hired politicians can argue that success can only come through driving wages down and increasing the working week exponentially.

The European capitalists, forced by strong unions and militant workforces to make some limited concessions on workers' rights in the last decades, are demanding a level playing field with British capitalism.

Whilst the Blair government, ever in debt to big business and the Murdoch-dominated press, are saying to the EU governments: "Why don't you do what we have - smash the rights of your workers as well?"

The 48-hour maximum law, when examined in any detail, has been very much watered down anyway. The euro MP's changes include allowing the average working week to be calculated not over four months as at present but over 12 months from now on. So you will still get the extremes of lengthy hours when the bosses want them and none when they don't. This will particularly affect seasonal workers.

It will make little difference to the millions of workers in sweat shops. Their bosses use fear and intimidation to force workers to either sign an opt-out form or fail to keep any accurate records of hours worked. That is always supposing that there are enough government inspectors to keep a check anyway.

The prize for the biggest hypocrite must go to Digby Jones, the director general of the CBI, who said it is about "freedom of choice" for the worker to work long hours. "Who's going to pay them the money they lose if they can't work overtime? They won't be able to afford their holidays," he weeped.

Long hours and low wages are the main characteristics of the British economy. This is the main reason the bosses have raked in such high profits. Yesterday's pundits promised a land of plenty in an efficient economy, based on ultra-modern technology. They predicted that the working week would be reduced to four or even three days and workers would find it difficult to work out what to do with all their leisure time.

Socialists and trade unionists have to step up the fight to end the low pay and long hours culture. We need a programme which includes a 35-hour week without loss of pay and a decent minimum wage of at least 8 per hour. If Sir Digby Jones and his mates scream: "We can't afford it", despite their huge profits, then we should say we can't afford them and get rid of them instead.

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