We do not have a working time problem in Australia, we have a working time crisis argues ACTU Assistant Secretary Richard Marles.

We do not have a working time problem in Australia. We have a working time crisis.

Two million Australians – the highest proportion of any country in the OECD – work in excess of 50 hours a week each and every week.

In Europe the European Directive on Working Time caps the working week at 48 hours. This means that two million Australians are working in conditions which in Europe would be unlawful.

Almost half that number are non managerial award workers. While it is true to say that managers are over represented amongst those who work long hours, it is also true to say that long hours now permeate every occupation and every industry in this country.

Australia is the second longest working time country in the OECD. Only workers in Korea are working longer hours than workers in Australia. And whereas working time in Korea is on the decline, in Australia it is on the increase. If we do not do something about this problem soon we will fast become the longest working time country in the developed world.

The problem is getting worse and don’t our members know it. In the most recent ACTU survey of 8,000 union members more than a third indicated that they were unhappy with the hours that they were working because they were working too many hours.

Some employers say that it is good for the country that we work long hours. Yet the truth of the matter is that it is unequivocally bad.

Long hours of work have been associated with an increase in heart disease, a decrease in fertility, an increase in stress, a decrease in the rate at which healthy babies are born, and an increase in accidents.

Long hours of work is the biggest occupational health and safety problem in Australia today. At its worst it is a problem which is killing people.

But that is not were the problem stops.

Relationships Australia tell us that the single biggest factor in relationship breakdown is a lack of time and that is mostly due to work.

Long hours of work have also been linked to a decrease in parenting – the amount of time that parents spend with their children; and an increase in problems suffered by adolescent children.

The 1999 Joint Federal Parliamentary Inquiry into Fatigue in Transport tried to put a cost on fatigue related transport accidents to our country – and this is almost all work related fatigue. They put this figure conservatively at $3 billion each year.

And this only deals with one small adverse impact of long hours of work.

This figure does not include the loss of productivity associated with tired workers. It does not include increased accident rates because of fatigued workers. It does not include the cost to our health system through increases in things such as heart disease. It does not include the cost to our society of family breakdowns.

This is a problem which must be costing our country tens of billions of dollars every year. To put that figure into context the most recent Victorian budget had a total revenue of $27 billion. That is, it is costing us about the same amount to run the second largest state in our Federation as it is to deal with this country’s appalling record in relation to long hours of work.

“… long hours of work is merely a symptom of a bigger issue, and that issue is work intensification.”

Yet long hours of work is merely a symptom of a bigger issue, and that issue is work intensification.

As Australia’s economy is becoming more and more a part of the world’s economy, employers are hunting more and more for productivity.

Sometimes they achieve that productivity through clever innovation and new technology.

But all too often that productivity is achieved through employers crudely exploiting workers. They ask people to do more for the same or less pay. But because you cannot stretch a rubber band around an elephant the band breaks.

From results based pay schemes, to chronic understaffing, to unpaid overtime, to simply speeding up the conveyer belt, work in 2003 is more intense than it has ever been.

And as our economy and our way of life is becoming more and more 24/7, employers are hunting more and more for flexibility.

Work is being performed on the margins of the day.

Sometimes full-time workers are asked to work these extra margins and in so doing they become long hours workers.

Increasingly, however, for many people working those marginal hours is the only work they ever obtain. The rate of casualisation in Australian has grown from 16% of our workforce in 1984 to 27% as measured last year. By international standards the proportion of our workforce working less than standard hours ranks us second by that measure in the OECD.

Thus, while work intensification is giving rise to longer hours of work, it is giving rise to shorter hours of work as well; hours which are less predicable, less stable, and less secure.

So the problem of working time has become a very complex problem and it is intimately bound up with the issue of work intensification. You cannot hope to solve one without addressing the other.

“… Australia has a very proud history in dealing with the problem of working time.”

But Australia has a very proud history in dealing with the problem of working time.

On 21 April 1856 not more than a few kilometres from here at a building site at Melbourne University, workers downed tools and marched in pursuit of an 8-hour day. It was a claim that they ultimately achieved. The significance of that dispute is that it was the first 8-hour day achieved anywhere in the world.

You might ask why it happened first in Australia. And the reason may be surprising for those of you from interstate. For many of these workers hailed from the British Isles and they complained that the oppressive heat of the Melbourne climate prevented them from working the same kind of hours that they would have done in the home country. And so it was that hours of work became a critical issue in Australia. And so it was Australia began to lead the world in civilising working time.

At the time of Federation the standard working week was 48 hours – six 8-hour days. In 1920 Justice Higgins in the Timber Workers Case introduced for the first time in a national industry a 44 hour week – five 8-hour days and a half day on Saturday. This was confirmed for the entire Australian workforce in 1927 in the 44 Hour Case. Twenty years later in 1947 the Standard Hours Inquiry introduced a 40 hour week – five 8-hour days. It was, in effect, the decision which gave Australia the weekend.

At all points along that time line 1856-1947, Australia led the world in civilising working time.

And it is worth just thinking a little about that period of time in terms of the formation of Western Society.

Five years to the month after the Melbourne University march the US Civil War began, a war which confirmed liberal democracy as the form of government in the United States. During the second half of the 19th century, as the 8-hour day was being spread throughout the Australian continent, the American economy was burgeoning and becoming the dominant economic force in the world. Three years before Justice Higgins’ decision in the Timber Workers Case the Russian revolution occurred and with it the world had its first communist economy. In the same year as the 44 Hour Case – 1927 – Hitler gave his first post prison speech and European fascism was on the march. And two years before the Standard Hours Inquiry the Second World War ended and with it ended European fascism, the world became divided between communist and capitalist economies, and most importantly in our region were born the new East Asian economies of Singapore, Korea and Japan.

1856 to 1947 was really the period in which Western Society crystallised. And during that very same period Australia was leading Western Society in civilising working hours.

It is therefore not an exaggeration to say that the way in which Western Society organises its days and weeks now is because of the efforts of Australian unionists in the period 1856 through 1947. It is perhaps this country’s signature contribution to the way the world works today.

This legacy gives us in the Australian union movement a special responsibility to deal with the issue of hours of work.

It is therefore a tragic irony that in 2003 we stand here as the second longest working hours country in the OECD.

Australia has always been known for its stance on hours of work. Early on in our history it was because we civilised working time. Now it is because we are a long hours country.

Thus, long hours of work is a problem in international terms, it is a problem in historical terms, it is a problem in financial terms, and it is most certainly a problem in human terms.

“… a call to arms for all of us to deal with a very difficult problem in a very sophisticated way.”

Last year’s Working Hours Case was an important step forward. For the first time Australian workers now have the right to refuse to work overtime where that would give rise to unreasonable hours of work. But perhaps the real achievement of the Working Hours Case is that Australia, through its national Industrial Tribunal has acknowledged that we have on our hands a long hours crisis. Every statistic, every fact which I have quoted to you today was accepted in that case. And this acceptance and that acknowledgment are really a call to arms for all of us to deal with a very difficult problem in a very sophisticated way.

Sometimes our solutions are going to have to be traditional.

The policy being presented to you today calls upon unions to campaign to limit the working week to 48 hours a week through enterprise bargaining. All the research indicates that this is the maximum number of hours that people can safely work before endangering their own lives and the lives of others.

Already, many unions have taken significant steps towards achieving this goal. The Queensland Nurses in their campaign against understaffing. The ETU in its campaign in the Victorian construction industry to cap the working week at 48 hours. The work of the Australian Workers Union in the pastoral industry. The campaign of the Finance Sector Union against unpaid overtime in our major banks. The campaign of the Teachers in dealing with increased contact hours. And the work of the Transport Workers’ Union in dealing with fatigue on our roads.

However, in asserting this as our goal we understand the many hurdles which are in the way of achieving it. Because this is an issue where there is no one size fits all solution.

For those who work long hours and are not paid for them this represents a tough fight for industrial justice. For those of our higher paid members there is a difficult discussion to be had with them about the appropriate balance between time and money.

And of course for our lower paid membership we need to increase their rates of pay before they can be in a position to accept fewer hours of work. Because it is an acceptable solution to the problem of long hours of work to undermine people’s living standards. It is important to understand that the policy being presented to you today does not seek to place a limit on such people. No worker will be prevented from earning a living wage no matter how many hours that takes. However, in acknowledging this we must also acknowledge that a situation where a worker needs to work 55 hours a week in order to earn a living wage is unacceptable and we in the union movement need to do something about it.

So just as in 1856 when the union movement set as a goal the establishment of a 48 hour working week, so again in 2003 we must set 48 hours as our goal for the maximum working week. And at an appropriate time and in an appropriate industry we must introduce this concept into the award system.

Sometimes our solutions will need to be insightful – they must go to the causes of work intensification which give rise to long hours of work: such as understaffing; such as unfair schemes of payment by results; and such as long unpaid hours of work.

We can deal with the symptom of long hours of work but if we do not deal with it at its root cause through the problem of work intensification we can never hope for success.

Finally, our solutions at times must be modern.

More and more people want to work part-time: parents who want to spend more time in raising their families; older workers who want a gradual transition into retirement. Ultimately part-time work is far more preferable than casual work. The hours are more secure and more predicable. You can buy a house, loan money, and build a life on the basis of part-time work in a way you simply cannot in relation to casual work. All the research indicates that there are far better training and occupational health and safety outcomes associated with part-time work as compared to casual work.

So as in Europe so too in Australia there should be a right to part-time employment. A right, to be sure, which is tempered by business needs. But the onus should be upon an employer to say why an employee cannot work part-time if that is what they choose. And with that right should come a minimum engagement of hours for those who wish to work part-time.

“… our guiding light in dealing with the hours issue has to be fairness.”

When unions were formed in the mid 19th century two issues occupied them; wages and hours of work.

After many decades on the back burner it is once again imperative that the Australian union movement focuses its attention on hours of work.

It is an issue which is far more complex in 2003 than it was in 1856. But our guiding light in dealing with the hours issue has to be fairness: fairness for those who work too much and fairness for those who work to little.

Richard Marles, Assistant Secretary, ACTU. Melbourne Convention Centre Melbourne, 19 August 2003