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When I come home it’s ‘Hello stranger’

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Issue 1678

Workers’ experience in Britain today

When I come home it’s ‘Hello stranger’

By Hazel Croft

“THE YEAR 2000-the year of leisure” was the theme of a two day conference I went to when I was at a further education college in 1980. We were told that new technology would lead to a shorter working week. Sociology textbooks were full of analysis about the future “leisure society”. At the conference we spent two days discussing what hobbies and leisure pursuits people would follow to enrich their lives in the year 2000.

What a sick joke that seems today. Instead of the leisure society we have the “24 hour society”. Instead of shorter hours we are working longer than ever. And far from our lives being enriched, harder work and unsociable working times are ruining our health. The government’s own figures, released by the Department of Trade and Industry in December, revealed that half the population say they have less leisure time today than they did five years ago.

The average British worker does 44.9 hours a week and 13 percent of workers slog their guts out for over 48 hours a week. Some 21 percent of full time male workers do more than 48 hours a week. Yet despite working longer hours British workers take home less money than their counterparts in Europe. The average worker in Britain is paid 15,200 a year compared with a European average yearly pay packet of 17,270. Low pay forces millions of workers to do two jobs or punishing overtime. Those with jobs barely have enough time to have decent relationships with their partners, children or friends, let alone the time and money to pursue hobbies!

Despite huge advances in technology over the last 20 years the capitalist system has not made our working lives easier. Instead, with the encouragement of New Labour, at the dawn of the 21st century bosses want to return to the working practices of the 19th century. That is what lies behind Blair’s favourite buzzword, “flexibility”, and all the talk of a 24 hour society. The bosses want to boost profits by increasing hours, cutting back holidays or sick leave, and making workers be at their beck and call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Whether they can get away with it depends on the strength of workers’ organisation.

The “family friendly” New Labour government tells us it is creating a “modern” Britain. Flexibility is supposed to give workers more time with their families and enable people to choose what hours they work. In 1998 only 51 percent of employed men and 38 percent of employed women worked full time for five days a week, with no regular weekend, evening or night work. An incredible one in three full time male workers who have children worked for more than 50 hours a week in 1998, compared with one in four in 1988.

Flexible shift patterns mean people are more likely to have time off at irregular and unsociable hours. Sleep patterns are sent haywire, causing untold damage to workers’ health. Relationships are often wrecked as couples try to juggle shifts, childcare and housework. Yet average wages are often substantially lower for those regularly working nights and evenings. Full time women night workers, for example, are twice as likely to be low paid as those who work days.

Yet New Labour has the nerve to lecture parents about taking more responsibility for their children. Like the Tories before them, New Labour is scapegoating working class parents. From the luxury of its smart homes and children’s posh schools, New Labour blames ordinary parents for everything-from crime and drugs to teenage pregnancies and poor educational achievement.

Most parents would love to have more time and money to spend with their children, to help with reading and homework, to go on fun or educational trips. But Blair’s flexible Britain makes this impossible for millions of working class parents.

  • Figures in this section are from Working 9 to 5? by Susan Harkness in The State of Working Britain, edited by Paul Gregg and Jonathan Wadsworth, 14.99.

A modern sweatshop

ANGELINE CHIVAS worked at the National Rail Inquiries call centre. She spoke to Socialist Worker about the reality of long hours, unsociable shifts and the “24 hour society”.

“IT’S AN absolute nightmare at work. Sometimes I’ve worked a 12 hour shift and got just a 20 minute break. You can’t eat properly, you haven’t even got time to go to the shops to get your lunch. The bosses are watching our every move. You have to ask to go to the toilet and then you are timed. Most of the day you are not allowed to move. We are open until 10pm at night. Call centres should stick to humane hours. They should close at 8pm at the latest.”

“There is nothing modern about the 24 hour society. It’s like being back in Dickensian times, the days of the sweatshops and the workhouses. Who wants a 24 hour society? It’s the shareholders who want more money, more profits in their pockets. Every worker should get the same breaks, the same entitlements.”

Grim realities on early morning bus

THE 5am number 73 bus, which goes from Tottenham to central London, is packed every morning. Nearly everyone on the bus is a low paid worker-either starting or leaving work. A quick survey on one morning in December found six cleaners, two security guards, a hospital porter, a nurse, two clothing factory workers and a fast food worker among the travellers.

Aileen does early morning office cleaning. Her husband, a former building worker, is too ill to work. Her two teenage children are still living at home. She said, “I’m the main breadwinner. I keep things together. I do office cleaning from 6am to 9am and then again for a few hours in the evening. In between I clean people’s houses and do a few odds and ends. My husband doesn’t work but I still hardly see him.”

Jim, a hospital porter, also starts work at 6am. He says his shifts vary all the time. “It’s not very good for family relations-let’s put it that way,” he says. “Wages are low, so you also take any overtime you can get. My wife also works part time in the local Tesco supermarket, plus we’ve got three children at school. So it’s a bit of a struggle to get by financially at the moment. I remember my dad telling me when I was a teenager that young people had it easier than in his day. But that’s just a myth. We’ve had to scrimp, work hard, go without holidays, new clothes. And most of our friends are the same. The most common greeting in my house when I get home is, ‘Hello stranger’!”

It’s not 9 to 5

  • In a quarter of families with children at least one parent regularly works in the evening.
  • A fifth of mothers work in the evening so that they can have the children looked after by partners, relatives or friends.
  • Women in couples are 50 percent more likely to work evenings if they have children.

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