Magazine article New Internationalist

Workers of the World, Relax

Magazine article New Internationalist

Workers of the World, Relax

Article excerpt

This economic crisis has left us with many memorable images: vast tent cities in the US, the richest country in the world. Hunks of marble hurled by angry anarchists beneath the Greek Parthenon, the birthplace of Western democracy.

But one image sticks out as particularly memorable, if simply for its sheer quirkiness: newly laid-off employees from the bankrupt financial firm Tehman Brothers - one of the first to fall - leaving the building, office trinkets boxed up. And smiling.

Along with razed rainforests and Shanghai skyscrapers this could become one of the defining images of our era: employees happy to be ejected from their well-paid jobs.

This strange combination of joy and loss forces us to ponder a very serious question: why do we work the way we do?

We have come to see a 35-40 hour working week not only as normal but also as essential for a thriving society. But the Commissioner for Health with the UK Sustainable Development Commission begs to differ. Anna Coote argues that long work hours are linked to extreme gaps in wealth, environmental degradation, climate change and lots more besides.

As co-author of the New Economics Foundation (NEF) report 21 hours, Coote proposes that a 21-hour working week should be the norm. In some respects, it already is - each person in Britain already works an average of 20 hours a week if you spread working hours evenly across the population.

It all comes down to what we consider 'work': what labour we think is worth paying for. If all the time spent in the UK on unpaid labour - raising children, cooking, household chores and so on - were paid at the minimum wage, it would account for 21 per cent of the country's GDP. 'Informal carers' who attend to the sick and the elderly without pay already 'save' the British economy $125 million year.

Rather than allowing that labour to remain unaccounted (and unappreciated), we could 'redistribute paid labour, reduce the differential between paid and unpaid work, and make better use of human assets,' says Coote.

Halving the normal working week could solve a litany of social problems: it could slash unemployment (as well as the attendant crime) and reduce state benefits and other social costs. Providing more free time to workers would create space in their lives to exercise, play, sleep and - put simply - enjoy life. Studies consistently show that more leisure means more productivity to boot. Health costs from stressrelated illness - one of the greatest burdens on developed nations - would plummet. And gender norms could even improve: men could take on more of what is considered 'women's work' - and fathers could spend increased time with their children.

Such a drastic shift couldn't happen overnight. Changes would need to be brought in gradually - an increased minimum wage, progressive taxation and slow reductions in legal working hours. "This is intended more as a provocation: we want people to consider what society could look like/ says Coote.

There will be obvious hurdles: 'We don't want to dump on communities that already suffer from a lack of paid work/ Nonetheless, the report is making waves. 'It really seems to have struck a chord/ she admits.

Reducing unemployment and giving the overworked more free time makes intuitive sense. But on a global scale the maths becomes truly interesting: reducing working hours could be one of the keys to solving climate change. On a country-by-country basis there is a direct correlation between the average number of working hours and per capita greenhouse gas emissions.

The Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research estimates that if Americans were to work the same number of hours as Europeans (who work up to 300 hours less per year) they would reduce their carbon footprint by up to 30 per cent. Less time spent at a factory or office translates into less time spent driving to work, less energy consumed in the building or on the road, and fewer materials used in production. …

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