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Cooking the Books 1: The Right to Work All Hours

In 1993 the European Commission proposed that the maximum time that employers could legally make their employees work should be limited, on average and including overtime, to 48 hours a week.

A quick calculation will show that, for a six-day week, this is the Eight Hour Day, a long-time trade union demand. In Capital (chapter 10 on “The Working Day”) Marx quotes a declaration from a General Congress of Labor that met in Baltimore in August 1866 that “The first and great necessity of the present, to free the labour of this country from capitalistic slavery, is the passing of a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working day in all States of the American Union”. In fact, May Day was instituted in 1889 precisely to demonstrate for this in all countries.

The Council of Ministers of the Member States of the European Union (the body that makes European laws) did not accept this proposal. While still retaining 48 hours as the maximum that employers could legally require their workers to work, they amended the draft Working Time Directive to allow countries to provide for individual workers to voluntarily waive their legal right not to work more than this. This loophole, inserted at the insistence of the UK  minister, came to be known as the “UK opt-out”. Which the then Tory government immediately took advantage of.

Since the bargaining strength of workers and employers are by no means equal this made the Directive virtually a dead letter in Britain, with employers making “voluntary” agreement to work longer a condition for being employed or promoted. As Paul Routledge explained in his column in the Daily Mirror (13 May):

“Forty per cent of UK firms exploit the opt-out – by ‘asking’ workers to sign away their rights. Many bosses require staff to accept employment contracts containing an opt-out clause, even though this is illegal. No clause, no job”.

When the Directive came up for review in May this year, the European Parliament (which is not a real parliament, more a consultative committee) voted to end the “UK opt-out”. Immediately a huge hue and cry was raised by employers’ organisations in Britain. “Freedom of choice” was at issue, said the Director General of the CBI, echoing what employers had said in the 1840s when a timid bill to limit the working day to ten hours had been introduced. It would undermine “competitiveness”, said the Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce, expressing employers’ dislike of restrictions on how long they can get their workers to work, since any limitation could mean they might have to take on more workers, so increasing their labour costs and undermining their competitive position vis-à-vis capitalist enterprises in other countries – such as China, Brazil and India where no such restrictions apply.

And what did the newly-elected Labour government have to say on this? Yes, yes, it would undermine competitiveness, we’ll fight to ensure that a maximum 48-hour week is not introduced into Britain, grovelled Industry Secretary Alan Johnston and Employment Minister Gerry Sutcliffe (both of whom had climbed the greasy pole via the trade union movement).

True to their word, they did and won. The Council of Ministers retained the opt-out. Proof if any more were needed (which it isn’t) that Labour is not even a “Labour” party.