Today
Mon 18 October 2021

Maheen Behrana explains how Britain has longer working hours than any EU country and why the Conservative Party is so rigidly wedded to keeping it that way

After a supremely sunny bank holiday weekend, many of us have been left to fantasise about a permanently shortened work week. While this idea in the past was confined to the fringes of political thought – and the minds of tired, grumpy Monday morning commuters – it has now entered the mainstream.

A recent study has found that a four-day working week would reduce the UK’s carbon emissions by 127 million tonnes. From a business perspective, repeated trials of the four-day week show increased productivity, improved employee wellbeing and reduced absenteeism.

UK workers currently work an average of 42.3 hours a week – longer than those living in any EU member states. Yet, it has low productivity and huge levels of employee stress. Something appears to be broken in Britain’s working world – and the evidence points to a four-day working week as a potential solution.

Sadly, though, any relaxations in the UK’s working hours won’t happen immediately. Indeed, the very idea stands directly opposed to the ethos of this Government.

For the four-day week to work effectively, it would rely on companies paying their staff a full wage for 20% reduced hours. The Conservative Party has typically favoured policies which don’t cap employee working hours and which do not set a minimum wage threshold.

In addition, recent rhetoric from the Government has attempted to downplay the importance of time off work. When the idea of an extra bank holiday in October was mooted last year, the Prime Minister declared that people have “had quite a few days off” and should “make a passing stab at getting back to the office”.

This jibe at people who had been furloughed – an experience which has been hugely stressful for those who have experienced it – also tried to frame calls for an extra bank holiday as a sign of social laziness; declared by a man who allegedly missed five crucial COBRA meetings at the start of the Coronavirus pandemic so that he could complete a book about Shakespeare. 

However, aside from the longstanding Conservative sentimentality towards Victorian-era working practices, something more malevolent may underpin the Government’s opposition to the four-day week.


Labour and Leisure

There is a great deal of evidence to show that authoritarian governments typically support watered-down workers’ rights – whatever form those may take.

Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, for instance, instituted a law allowing employers to ask for 400 hours of overtime work from their employees each year, failing to consult trade unions about the policy. Meanwhile, Turkey under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has routinely clamped down on trade union power, arresting strikers despite unsafe working conditions.

Both Hungary and Turkey have authoritarian governments, but we are less reluctant in the UK to turn a similar critical gaze on our own leaders. Yet, increasingly, the UK Government is proving itself to have such tendencies.

Its Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill has been criticised for criminalising “serious annoyance”. The Government is attempting to shut down discussion by exhorting school staff not to teach children about white privilege or share ‘anti-capitalist’ materials. It is also attempting to introduce voter ID at polling stations – a move, it is feared, will suppress the votes of poorer and black and ethnic minority voters.

Arguably, there is a reason why the suppression of progressive labour policies corresponds with other forms of authoritarianism: the use of exhaustion as a political tool.

In a recent report on Qatar’s treatment of migrant workers, one worker explained that while it was no longer technically illegal for him to look for a new job under Qatar’s reformed migrant labour laws, he was unable to do so because he worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Exhaustion leads to entrapment in poor conditions – simply because the exertion required to find a way out is too great.

And so it is with politics. The growing gig economy, the rise of the precariat and stagnant wages all conspire to exhaust the working and voting population. A tired population is not necessarily able to find the energy or the resources to challenge the systems and the structures that lead to perpetual exploitation and exhaustion.

A tired population cannot focus on political ills, or hold its government to account nearly as well as one that has ample time and energy to do so. When people’s immediate concerns are keeping a roof over their heads and feeding their families, it is difficult to concentrate on other issues far removed from these everyday concerns – like the questionable awarding of government contracts or Boris Johnson’s WhatsApp habits.

A four-day week would give people the time and space to consider their lives – and consider how politics impacts them. It is no wonder that several of today’s prominent Cabinet ministers, including Home Secretary Priti Patel and Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, therefore advocate for Chinese-style working conditions in the UK.

A tired population cannot focus on political ills, or hold its government to account nearly as well as one that has ample time and energy to do so.

Many Chinese workers, both white and blue collar, adhere to the gruelling 996 schedule – working from 9am to 9pm, six days a week. China is hardly a paragon of democracy or free thought. If British workers were to be beholden to the same schedule, it is highly likely that the Government could push through its policies and act with impunity far more easily.

Work and working conditions are political choices. A four-day week would change society for the better – not just because it would afford people more personal time, but because it would afford us more political time as well. And this is something an unscrupulous and authoritarian government will not countenance.

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