Elaine Brunskill, Socialist Party national committee
Labour conference has resolved the next Labour government should reduce the average full-time working week to four days (32 hours) – without loss of pay – within a decade. This will be welcomed by workers.
The policy is based on the findings of a report, ‘How to achieve shorter working hours’, commissioned by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.
Alongside hostile working practices such as zero-hour contracts and casualisation, which force workers to scrabble around to find enough work to make ends meet, another section of workers is forced to work incredibly long hours.
In the UK, the average full-time worker puts in 42.5 hours a week. This is among the highest in the EU. A recent study by University College London found that a quarter of teachers in England work more than 60 hours a week – despite successive governments pledging to cut their workload.
Polls conducted by the Trade Union Congress have found that after pay and stress, long hours are workers’ biggest concern. Even the Financial Times concedes that “more Britons long for shorter working hours.”
Alongside fighting for demands such as a decent minimum wage, full trade union rights, and scrapping the anti-union laws, for many years the Socialist Party has fought for a maximum 35-hour week with no loss of pay as a start in reducing working time. So, do we think this report can deliver?
The report’s author, cross-bench peer Lord Skidelsky, starts by setting out that it is “politically independent.” This is not reassuring!
‘Independence’ generally translates to accepting the capitalist status quo, or at best tinkering around the edges and offering workers a few more crumbs from the bosses’ table. In reality, workers need ‘biased’ reports – biased towards them!
This raises the question of who should be commissioned to write such reports. Surely McDonnell’s first port of call should have been the trade unions whose members suffer the consequences of long hours.
It is the trade unions, and most importantly their members, who best understand the need for a proper work/life balance, and must set out plans for how this could be achieved.
Trade union involvement would also test out the union leadership. If members were unhappy with the findings they would be able to raise that within their union.
However, Skidelsky’s report does raise important issues. For example, the fight for a shorter working week is not a new one.
The report highlights that in industrialised countries, working hours over the last 150 years have almost halved. Of course, the Socialist Party would add that the shorter working week wasn’t handed to workers on a plate – it was hard fought for.
The advent of Thatcherism in Britain, part of capitalism rolling out neoliberal policies worldwide, meant that in the 1980s the trend towards a shorter working week was reversed. This refuted the idea that over generations capitalism can slowly but steadily improve the lives of workers.
Skidelsky points out that in the 1930s, the liberal economist John Maynard Keynes had prophesied that by today the industrialised countries would be approaching a working week of just 15 hours! In reality, any hard-won reforms that are achieved by workers will always be reined back in by greedy bosses and the capitalist system.
The fight for any reform must always be linked to the need for the socialist transformation of society. Only by ending profit as the economy’s driving force, by taking the banks and big companies into public ownership under democratic working-class control, could the benefits of new technology and productivity go towards workers’ hours and wages rather than riches for the billionaires.
Lord Skidelsky’s document suggests a future Labour government could push forward a shorter working week by having the public sector pave the way.
It says this would include ensuring all state jobs cut weeks to 35 hours within the next decade. And any outsourcing contracts would only go to companies which guarantee to reduce hours while protecting pay and conditions.
But a decade is a long time, and there’s a danger that as time goes on the deadline gets pushed further and further back. Also, most workers would not be touched by the private contracts rule, and many of those who would will want to see outsourced public jobs coming back into the public domain anyway.
The Socialist Party says we need more immediate and more concrete plans, including ensuring from the onset that workers in the whole private sector are covered. Hopefully these issues will be clarified in Labour’s manifesto. However, even a hint of a four-day working week could have an electrifying impact.
Any incoming Corbyn-led government would from the onset be pushed in a socialist direction by workers who have had their sights raised. Socialist ideas could become contagious.
Asda workers facing a company who want to force pernicious contracts on them, factory workers forced to work long hours to get a half-decent wage, teachers facing ever-increasing workloads, young workers facing a lifetime of zero-hour contracts and casual work practices, all oppressed workers would feel the wind in their sails.
Lord Skidelsky’s report may be woefully inadequate. But under a Corbyn-led Labour government, it could act as a spark to ignite workers into fighting for much more far-reaching, socialist policies.