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The pandemic should open up a new struggle over working hours

IAN WADDELL of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions says the labour movement has to seize on the new understanding of what constitutes essential work

SINCE the Covid-19 crisis erupted workers have been at the forefront of our society’s response, from the heroic efforts of front-line health workers to the essential workers keeping supermarkets stocked with shelves. 

Cleaners became critical workers as companies, schools and universities embarked on deep-clean programmes to disinfect their premises. 

Essential jobs included many low paid roles: postal workers and distribution drivers; bus and coach drivers; bank customer service advisers; teachers, care home workers, social workers and support staff; farm workers, food production workers; and sewerage workers to name just a few of the jobs vital to maintaining our way of life during lockdown. 

Within a few short weeks the notion of the critical skills that the nation needed has been turned on its head. 

Across the UK, companies have responded to government guidelines by fundamentally changing the way they work.  

Millions of workers have been working from home, enabled by technology that allows them to remain productive while being away from the office or factory.  

Meanwhile, tens of thousands of production workers have changed shift patterns at short notice and working methods have been rapidly altered to allow for safe working, incorporating social distancing and the use of personal protective equipment. Other workers have been furloughed and are waiting anxiously to see if their employers will recall them to work when the crisis passes.


Unions have been front and centre in the response to the health and economic impacts of the virus and a tripartite working group involving the government, TUC and CBI swiftly hammered out an approach to supporting businesses including the Job Retention Scheme and urgent business loans.  

The scheme was later extended to cover self-employed workers and small businesses after intense lobbying by the TUC, demonstrating the power of trade union organisation.


The Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU) led the campaign for a shorter working week in the 1990s and we have been working on a campaign to reignite the appetite among workers for shorter working time.  

Suddenly, the world has changed and people are beginning to question why they have devoted so much of their lives in being at work, or connected to work email, mobile phones and all the other paraphernalia of modern life.  

The heartrending stories of those suffering the terrible pain of bereavement due to Covid-19 have been a stark reminder of the value of family and friends, so much more important than work in the grand scheme of things. For those living and working in big cities, they will be asking themselves why they spent so much time commuting to work if it could be done more effectively at home?
  
With so many people saying that there will be no return to “normal,” then surely it is a reasonable aspiration for the new normality to encompass more flexible hours to balance childcare or other caring responsibilities and work? 

It is reasonable to ask to spend less time at work and more with those we love and cherish at home.  

It is reasonable to ask why the UK is the poor relation of Europe in the number of public holidays and paid holidays workers enjoy here, especially poignant when Europeans are celebrating International Workers’ Day with a public holiday but we are not. And it is reasonable to ask why UK workers have to carry on much longer until they reach retirement age than their European counterparts.

Collectively, it seems as if our consciousness of the imbalance in our work-life balance has been awakened and demands to be addressed.  There has never been a better opportunity to advance the arguments of redressing working time.  

Identifying an aspiration and an opportunity to advance it is only the first step, however. No matter how opportune the timing, history tells us that major advances in working conditions are only won when working people take collective action to win those advances.  

The CSEU will shortly publish a report that we commissioned the New Economics Foundation to write, highlighting case studies of where major victories in the battle for shorter working time have been won across the world. This is just the first step in building the arguments and the tools to run a campaign across manufacturing.

The Alex Ferry Foundation, a new charity funded by the legacy of the last shorter working week campaign, has commissioned the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) to carry out an assessment of how working time has shifted during the Covid-19 lockdown period in the UK.  We expect to publish the findings of this research in June this year. Whatever the outcome, it seems clear from the lessons of past victories that strong union organisation and a member-led campaign will be key to shifting the dial on working time.  

Employers may well argue that a looming recession should put paid to any thoughts of rebalancing working time.  

However, rationalisation and reconfiguration of industry provide a perfect platform to reshape the balance and fundamentally shift the dial so that workers are more productive and efficient, freeing time.  

Indeed, reducing hours to spread workload could be employed as one means of reducing the overall numbers of potential job losses if, as predicted, the economy goes into recession.  

Countering the drive to downsize with more progressive measures to protect jobs and improve working time will be a key role for the unions.

The Covid-19 crisis has made us all think and act differently, so now is the opportunity for government, employers and unions to seize the moment and really engage on the issue of shorter working time. One thing is certain, the issue will not go away, especially if there is a recognition that there can be no return to business as usual.

Ian Waddell is the general secretary of the Confederation of Shipbuilding & Engineering Unions, whose affiliates are Unite, GMB, Prospect and Community.

Twitter @ianwaddell_CSEU
 

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