Slavish desire to work on

The workers’ freedom to work is more than just an employers’ con trick – it’s about flexibility and the right to choose

‘The first and immediate consequences of limiting the age of children employed to ‘under 9 years’ will be to throw out of employment all that class of hands. This is perhaps the most cruel stroke to the poor man which could be inflicted… this threatened invasion of the rights of the parent over the child [is] an infringement of the liberty of the subject and a direct violation of the homes of Englishmen.’

So wrote an employer’s representative in a letter to Sir John Cam Hobhouse, who was responsible for introducing the 1833 Factory Act. The thing to note is not the sentiment of the letter – children had always worked and the idea that it might be inhumane was widely held to be preposterously new-fangled – but the way the case was made. The argument rested on two themes: the loss of jobs and the threat to individual liberty. To this day, employers’ opposition to employment regulation invariably invokes one, or often both, of these twin evils.

For the next few weeks, expect to see a great deal of the liberty card. Employers are gearing up to maintain the opt-out from the working time regulations as the Government reviews the legislation, following criticism from the European Commission that the opt-out is being abused.

The line from employer organisations is that workers should be free to work as long as they want to. They don’t need the state to dictate their working time. “Our research shows that the majority of long-hours workers are opposed to… any moves to restrict their freedom to choose the hours they work,” argues the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

There is every reason to be suspicious of such arguments. Employers have got long and shabby form here. Whenever straightforward self-interest has been felt to be in need of a few sinews, along has come good old worker liberty to reinforce the cause – like a bullied child’s brawny brother. It’s not the cost of people working fewer hours that bothers employers. No, no, no. It’s the threat to individual freedom. It must just be an oversight that liberty’s protectors do not tend to mention that the main reason why long-hours workers do so is that they have got too much work to do. It’s a simple question of freedom. It would be unbearably oppressive for the state to wrench the worker from the work they love.

Bar a handful of honourable exceptions, it has never been employers who have voluntarily led the way towards humanising the workplace, and the great contemporary cause celebre of working time is unlikely to be the turning point. So can we dismiss the liberty argument over working time as a deceitful exercise in employer spin?

It would be nice to answer ‘yes’ to this question. But once you manage to separate the argument from the people who are making it, the more it seems to me that there really are some basic philosophical difficulties with the state saying how people should use their time, which are not easily ignored.

‘Freedom to work’ was a slogan that once graced trade union banners. It is not purely a ruse of capitalist exploitation. As much as I dislike the current situation of people being expected to make sacrifices to their work, I dislike the idea of those who find great meaning in their work being denied it. A mass desire for moderation in hours should not be incompatible with a minority’s desire to lose themselves in the balm of hard graft.

At heart, I suppose what I mean is that I do not think the ideas of duty, calling, vocation, of meaningful work, are an empty sham. If someone drives themselves for 50, 60 or 70 hours a week, then our censure or approval should depend on an examination of the motivation and the results. History owes great debts to the driven. There is always more to long hours than social vandalism alone.

The idea of a genuine freedom to work is absent from most critiques of long hours. A decade after all those American books with titles like The Overworked American, and The TimeBind, the UK is catching up. According to Guardian journalist Madeleine Bunting’s new book, Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives, ‘freedom to work’ comes out somewhere between a seductive delusion and an outright con trick.

The book’s best chapter paints a complicated picture of ‘why we do it’: of becoming affluent only to work longer hours, of ‘living the brand’, of busyness as a measure of advancement, of how the New Age ‘project of the self’ has become inseparable from the demands of the market for ‘work all hours’ drones. The emphasis on people being used like lab rats, however, tends to squeeze out any sense that the function of work is and has always been extremely diverse. For some, a working life is their life’s work, and their working patterns will reflect it.

The maintenance of diverse working patterns is the only conceivable justification for keeping the working time opt-out. The UK is unusual in Europe not because it works the longest hours – since 1 May 2004, that particular wooden spoon belongs to Latvia with a typical full-time working week of 43.6 hours, against the UK’s 43.3 – but precisely because it has diverse working patterns. Some 22 per cent work flexibly, some 26 per cent are part time, and about a fifth work more than 48 hours a week. The proportion working the long hours has been falling for five years.

*Willing Slaves: How the Overwork Culture is Ruling Our Lives, by Madeleine Bunting, Harper Collins, 2004

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