Monday, October 22, 2007

Labour Day

Eight hours work,
Eight hours play,
Eight hours rest,
And a fair day's wage for a fair days work.
That was the cry workers marched under when fighting for the eight hour day in the nineteenth century - a struggle we remember on Labour Day. But today, for many, the eight hour day is a distant dream. Twenty percent of us work more than 50 hours a week, and that rises to 40% among men aged 35 - 54. And we pay a price for it, in depression, in illness, and in our relationships with family and friends.

The 1991 Employment Contracts Act bears much of the blame for this. By repealing the previous limits on working hours and requirements for overtime, while smashing unions and removing their ability to stand up for their members and workers generally, it gave employers a free hand to demand that we work longer and longer hours. As a result, we're rapidly heading back towards the nineteenth century, unravelling more than 150 years of progress in barely two decades. The National Party calls this "freedom", of course, just as their ideological forebears did back then, but it is a one-sided freedom. The ugly truth is that we are "free" to work for as many hours as our bosses demand. Fundamental choices on how we live our lives, how much time we spend with our friends and families, even how much sleep we are allowed to have and so how shit we feel every day are in their hands, not ours.

As for what can be done about this, like Darien Fenton I favour restoring maximum hours of work and mandatory overtime. But the blunt fact is that the Labour Party is far too cowardly to risk anything so radical as restoring basic employment rights we took for granted for more than a century. So, if we want those rights, we're going to have to fight for them all over again. As for how, I suggest taking a page from the founder of the eight hour day in New Zealand, Samuel Parnell. When Parnell was asked shortly after arriving in New Zealand to work a twelve-hour day just as he had in London, he refused. He was able to do this because at the time the colony had a severe labour shortage and skilled workers were in demand. To point out the obvious, we have a severe labour shortage now, with unemployment the lowest it has been for twenty years and employers constantly complaining about how they can't find staff. We should use it. This is not a battle we should have to fight - a Labour Party worthy of the name would have dealt with this issue in its first term in government, if not its first week - but employment conditions do not protect themselves. So, the next time your boss tells you they need you to work longer so they can get richer, remember Samuel Parnell and just say "no".