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Thursday, May 12, 2005

But I *WANT* to work like a dog!

Lascivious has an excellent post discussing why the EU you should keep its grubby little paws off our working time directive opt-out clause, and I feel I have to chime in also.

Basically, the European Working Time Directive stipulates a raft of measures designed to protect workers. And damn right to. However, one of the most contentious clauses involves the restriction of workers to a 48 hour working week. Britain successfully negotiated an opt-out clause, allowing workers to sign up to work over 48 hours if they so wish, on a strictly voluntary basis. This week, the EU has voted to remove this clause. Almost all of our politicians are against losing the clause. Predictably the trade unions are in favour of removing the opt-out, as are every other "old" EU country. They cite abuse of the system by unscrupulous employers and health and safety concerns. It has nothing to do with the UK economy pissing on their economies. Nope, not at all.

This really is a thorny issue. On the one hand it is undoubtedly true that many employers do take the piss. A willingness to sign the "voluntary" opt-out clause is really only voluntary if you don't want the job. Further, there are valid H&S issues - after all who on earth wants van drivers working 16 hour shifts, even if they spent most of that shift in an office? Taking that issue further, what about people driving home from work after a long shift?

That being said however, there are plenty of people who do work 48 hours or more a week for good reasons. Low paid workers often rely on overtime to put food on the table - literally. Other jobs, by their nature may require long shifts, and people entering those professions largely do so with their eyes open. The H&S issue is also a red-herring. Professional drivers are already regulated regarding their hours and many people, myself included, don't drive to work. What does it matter if I nod off on the bus? On the flipside, I am also an insomniac. Believe me, I don't need to work long hours to be tired and sleepy and unfit to drive.

And of course, how can one police this? Unless they start logging my swipecard use, how will anyone know what hours I work? My job has a culture of long hours, particularly in the early years. I am salaried and receive no overtime, so could simply turn up 9 to 5, Monday to Friday for the same pay. However, like most young scientists, I am trying to make my name in the field by generating publishable work. That requires long hours. Do I wish it were otherwise? Of course. Do I wish it were easier for colleagues with family commitments? Absolutely! Do I think it is sensible or even practical to arbitrarily limit my hours? Hell no!

The consequences of this law are potentially wide-ranging. Ignoring the rather nebulous concept of Britain's economic prosperity, there will be an immediate consequence for Britain's poorest workers. Unless we suddenly agree upon a livable minimum wage (fat chance), and raise the lower band tax threshold to a sensible level, we will see extreme poverty if we aren't careful. Assuming a 48 week working year, with a 48 hour working week, then the minimum wage of £4.50 (ish) will result in a maximum gross annual salary of a little over £10,000. After tax, you are looking at about £8,500 take home. That was my take home as a PhD student in 2002 - and was roundly condemned in various reports (after I had graduated, naturally) as grossly inadequate. Even as a single, childless lab-rat with no commitments, living in a relatively cheap city, I struggled to make ends meet. Forget pensions or savings or a decent home - I lived in a single bedroom student flat in a shitty part of town and spent everything I earned on the basics.

What is likely to happen, is that people will simply lie. This is already happening in the NHS. A relative of mine, who is a junior doctor, attended a meeting held by a senior consultant. "These are the hours you will be working. These are the hours you will be writing down. If anyone has a problem, come and see me in my office". The rota was about 60 hours - the recorded hours were 48 hours. It is believed that nobody has complained.

Of course, the cynic in me suspects that the makers of laptop computers will be rubbing their hands in glee. How many firms are going to replace their desktop PCs with laptops - in the knowledge that staff under pressure to meet deadlines will simply take their computers home? I can receive email at home, and could potentially cut short the hours spent physically at university by doing my reading at home. They also plan to count "on call time". WTF? Whilst an SHO in a busy hospital may spend most of his or her "on call" time working, and should thus count it, there are plenty of jobs where being on call rarely results in one's sleep being disturbed. In fact, having tip-toed past a snoozing security guard on more than one occasion, there are a fair few jobs where even being in work is no impediment to a good night's sleep.

Sigh. Another blunt force law designed to fit all circumstances.



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