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Invasion of the time bandits

Those who are employed experience a distinction between their employer’s time and their ‘own’ time. And the employer must use the time of his labour, and see it is not wasted: not the task but the value of time when reduced to money is dominant. Time is now currency: it is not passed but spent.

-E. P. Thompson, Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism 

 The ideal office worker is a person whose personal life is entirely flexible and does not in any way limit the time they can give to their job. Ideally they live close to the office (no time-consuming commute) are childless, and have no significant interests outside of work.

According to the National Employment Survey 2008, the average hours worked across all sectors in Ireland in October 2007 was 34.4 per week. This figure will probably raise a hollow laugh from most workers, particularly salaried workers not entitled to overtime. The NES is probably not terribly reliable when it comes to calculating hours worked in jobs that don’t pay overtime since it’s completed by employers or HR departments and the figures it generates are for ‘paid hours’ – anyone who works in a job that doesn’t pay overtime knows that ‘paid hours’ and ‘hours worked’ are two very different things.

More reliable is the Quarterly National Household Survey, since it asks employees how many hours they usually work in a week. The headline figure, and the one usually quoted, is the average – for the period April-June 2009 the average was 35.3 hours per week; for the same period in 2010 it was 35.2. Again, that hollow laugh. Those low figures are a consequence of averaging the figures across full and part-time work. Since averages obscure as much as they reveal (obscure more, probably) let’s ignore them and take a look at the percentages.

For the period April-June 2010 33% of men worked 35-39 hours per week. 23% worked 40-44 hours, and 15% worked 45 hours or more. In other words, more men worked 40 or more hours than worked 35-39 hours. For women, the figures are:

35-39 hours: 35%

40-44 hours: 12%

45+ hours: 3%

Looking at the figures for longer hours (40+) worked by women and men it’s quickly obvious that bundling these two together to form an average is plain stupid. Far fewer women than men work 40 or more hours per week (because they have to get home and do the housework. And no, I’m not joking – they do.)

As Harry Browne points out below: ‘The historic ambition of the labour movement was not simply for better-paid work, or even safer or less alienating work: it was for less work. “Eight hours for work, eight hours for sleep, eight hours for what you will!”‘ No doubt some people in Ireland have that ‘eight hours for what you will’ but I’d wager they are the minority. And since we’re junking averages here, let’s junk the figures altogether and talk about what sociologists call ‘lived experience’.

I get paid for a standard 37.5 hour week. There’s no overtime or time off in lieu system [but] I’ve been doing an average of 9am-8pmish, so that’s about 50 hours a week. But there have been quite a few nights when it’s been after 9.

The work emails generally start arriving from 7am, and regularly the last one is about 10 or 11 pm (first email today was 7.40, last email was 10.30). I check emails when I get up about 7, then get my toddlers up and off to the creche. Then I work on emails on the train on the way in. I commute for two hours a day (one hour each way). The trains are always crowded and people joining at my station would never get a seat on the way in. Typically I sit on the floor and work, reading documents and sending emails. Over the last twelve months I would estimate that my typical working hours are between 45 and 70 hours. I get paid for a 32 hour week (four days), so I’m on 80% of full pay. There is no overtime for anyone in the office where I work and I would imagine it’s the same in almost all office jobs. The idea of overtime causes hollow laughter in anyone I work with; it’s an unimaginable fantasy. I don’t get any bonus for working long hours.

And work is not just the hours spent in the office. It’s the commute; it’s the emails on Friday nights and at weekends; it’s, as one professional put it: ‘the hardest thing about the job – that sense that you are never off.’

And what do you get for your work? If you’re aged somewhere between 25 and 40 and had neither wealthy and generous parents to furnish a deposit nor a particular desire to take out a mortgage ten or twenty times your annual earnings, you get:

[your] children in a holding pen for the day, every day, a mid-terraced house in the exurbs of Dublin without a tree in sight, an annual two week holiday in Tralee and a 10 year old car. Oh and a pension that is currently worthless.

The partners, shareholders, Group – they get to post a profit and a media platform to smugly announce how well they’re weathering the recession. And a cargo ship to put all their pre-tax profits on and plain sailing to Bermuda. Toot toot!

Sympathy for middle-class, white-collar workers is frequently in short supply. This, in itself, particularly when this short supply of sympathy is in its mediated form, is a problem. As is usual with mediated truisms, it both reflects and generates a state of affairs – in this case, it precludes the possibility of a collective sense of exploitation, and it also neatly disallows any identification with other exploited workers, be they restaurant workers, factory workers or electricians. Absent any collective sense, it’s down to the individual worker to get on with it, to ‘smile or die’. Not only that, but:

The very idea of collectivizing to protect their interests is anathema to white collar, middle-class professionals. They have always seen themselves as the class in adversarial relation to unions. Which is why white-collar workers could not even conceive of collectivizing to strengthen the precarious position they find themselves in today. Can you imagine law associates locked in collective bargaining to reduce their work week from ninety hours to eighty-five? Picketing accountants demanding two extra days of vacation a year? Data entry reps across the country staging a walk-out to win a fifteen-minute paid coffee break?

‘I can hire one bourgeois to alienate the other’ – this was something Marx had never foreseen.

(Mark Ames – Going Postal, p.119)

I’m not sure why you never hear of [unions] in places like this – I guess they carry quite a negative perception in the corporate environment, whether that’s right or wrong, and I have mixed feelings about them myself.

Another reward for the white-collar middle-class is a profound sense of alienation and helplessness. Dog eats dog and if Trisha in accounts worked sixty hours last week she’s held up as a paragon of ‘team spirit’. Natural human altruism is relentlessly exploited; you don’t work hard to make money for shareholders, you do it ‘for the team’.

I work late for my own peace of mind and a desire to do the job well, rather than from fear of repercussion. Our team is great and, sad as it sounds, I’ll work late to do my bit for them and help them out, and not for any other reason.

And if you’re not ‘doing it for the team’ you’re doing it because you take pride in your work:

Out of self-respect and professionalism I don’t want to let myself down in doing a good job.

And who could argue? Altruism is instinctive, and so is a need for self-respect. What’s profoundly unnatural is the cynical exploitation of these natural instincts by companies and corporations in the pursuit of profit. What is perhaps worse is the helpless isolation of the workers so exploited. Worse again is the internalisation of this isolation as inevitable, natural, and right.

Ames again:

Today’s white middle-class must be the only socioeconomic group in mankind’s history that not only doesn’t recognise its own miseries as valid, but reacts dismissively, even sarcastically (dissidents are called ‘whiners’), even violently against anyone from their class who tries to validate their misery.

(p. 149)

And all the while, the value employers extract from their employees goes up and up. The ‘average’ figures from the NES are, in this instance, telling. The ‘average’ employer pays the ‘average’ worker for 34 hours of work per week. What the employer really gets is 40 to 70 hours work for the price of 34. And if and when the worker puts in more than the EU allotted maximum of two-score and eight they do so of their own volition (naturally), meaning employers also get to avoid any trouble with pesky and déclassé labour laws. Everybody wins, see.

I think it is a deliberate policy to operate in crisis mode – under-staff, under-prepare, and rely on people rising to the occasion and making sacrifices in their personal lives to do so, when things become critical. The problem is that when this is a deliberate approach to running a department or a company, it means staff are permanently operating in crisis mode. It is only with the benefit of hindsight that you begin to see that this is how the company actually operates, and that there is no such thing as normal operations, a stable period when you can go home on time and not have urgent emails from 10 different people to respond to. It’s convincing you that this is a peak, and you only belatedly realise that there is never a trough to balance it out.

None of this is new, of course. C. Wright Mills wrote in 1951 that the white-collar worker

…seems to have no firm roots, no sure loyalties to sustain his life and give it a center. Perhaps because he does not know where he is going, he is in a frantic hurry; perhaps because he does not know what frightens him, he is paralyzed with fear. This is especially a feature of his political life, where the paralysis results in the most profound apathy of modern times.

He goes on:

Among white-collar people, the malaise is deep-rooted; for the absence of any order of belief has left them morally defenseless as individuals and politically impotent as a group.

And make no mistake – our current crisis will be (and is being) used to make people worker harder, faster, longer. Perhaps it’s about time we connected those little dots with the giant one that is the ever-increasing share of global wealth enjoyed by a tiny minority at the very very top. As Conor McCabe writes elsewhere in this issue: ‘In October 2008…the actual power elites in Ireland pulled up and dumped €85 Billion of shit over the head of every single Hico, Breakfast Roll, RobboPaddy and New Venetian in the State, before driving away into the distance, laughing their asses off.’

Back in December we asked if we’re ‘all in this together’ and the obvious answer was that no, we’re really not. But one thing that all workers do have in common is a common enemy, and that is those who steal their time and convert it to cash, and ride off into the sunset, laughing their asses off.

I know I need to fight back, and that the nastiness of the whole thing is that everything is so bad right now, and in the middle of it, you are kept constantly off balance and overworked so that it’s never the right time to start the fightback. But I will be teaching my kids how to fight.

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Illustration top by Redmonk.