WHO DEMANDED this week that workers should work longer hours, saying, “An obsession with the 35-hour week is now part of Europe’s economic problem, and not the solution”?
The boss of a multinational? The Tories?
No. It was New Labour’s Europe minister Denis MacShane. He claims workers in Germany, France and Britain, who campaigned, demonstrated and went on strike for decent working hours, are to blame for problems like unemployment.
This is sweet music to the ears of New Labour’s big business friends. But it is an insult to every worker slogging their guts out at work and barely getting time to see their families.
Working hours is one of the key battlegrounds around the whole debate on Europe. Although there are divisions among the British establishment, they are united in wanting to force more from workers.
The pro-Europe lobby knows the new European constitution would enshrine attacks on rights at work. Some leading companies are already giving a taste of those attacks to come.
The car giant DaimlerChrysler in Germany announced last month it wanted workers to work longer hours for the same pay. This sparked a strike by 60,000 car workers, but the longer hours went through.
Manufacturing giant Siemens forced through a deal in June at some of its plants in Germany to raise working hours without any extra pay.
This comes on top of the German government’s wide ranging attack on welfare, including slashing benefits for the long term unemployed.
In France some 820 workers at the Robert Bosch auto parts factory in Lyons last month were blackmailed into accepting an extra hour’s work a week without compensation.
They are the first group to breach France’s 35-hour week.
Another area where European bosses want more “efficiency” is sick pay. They assume most days off sick are the result of skiving, and are determined to make people drag themselves into work, however bad they feel.
Already companies like Tesco are piloting schemes to deny workers sick pay for the first three days they are off work. The government wants to do the same thing to hundreds of thousands of civil service workers.
Now Royal Mail has announced a plan targeting sickness rates.
As postal worker Paul Garraway told Socialist Worker, “With great fanfare Royal Mail announced their new incentive scheme. Employees with no sick absences will be entered into a draw and have the chance of winning one of 34 cars.
“What does Royal Mail actually think will be achieved with this publicity stunt?
“Those that are genuinely sick are penalised, and those that are entered are fully aware that they have little or no chance of winning.
“What schemes like these do is to encourage the sick to come to work regardless of their own health or those they work with.
“The publicity, however, has helped give credibility to the idea that the problems of the postal industry are the fault of those who do the work. Postal workers are portrayed yet again in a negative way.
“If Royal Mail was sincere in addressing the issue of attendance then it might want to consider looking at the long hours and poor pay that its employees endure, which may lead to their sickness.”
Employers across Europe and their friends in government would like to ram through US-style working practices.
The average US worker works 270 hours more a year than the average worker in France, and 371 hours more than workers in Germany, according to International Labour Organisation figures from 2002.
US workers take fewer holidays, just 16 days a year on average. This is even less than British workers, who get among the fewest holidays in Europe at 28 days.
Another issue where bosses are demanding change is over pensions. At present the vast majority of EU countries pay far more to their pensioners than the British government does. And often workers can retire earlier than in Britain.
In Italy, France, Germany and elsewhere there are far-reaching schemes to undermine pension provision and move closer to British rates. And at the same time the British government wants to force workers to work for more years before they can get their pension and then to pay far more themselves towards it.
Blair’s vision of Europe is of workers accepting rotten pay, working more hours, never daring to go off sick or take a holiday, and being forced to pay for their own pensions when they do eventually retire.
This is the backdrop to the debates at this year’s European Social Forum, which will be held in London on 14-17 October. It brings together unions and campaigners across Europe to discuss alternatives to the neo-liberal nightmare.
One strand of debate will be the idea of a workers’ Europe, not a bosses’ Europe.