By Sally Campbell
Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 277

Women and Work: Balancing Act

This article is over 18 years, 11 months old
Sally Campbell investigates claims that 'time is the new money' for women workers.
Issue 277

The wildcat strike by British Airways (BA) check-in staff at Heathrow Terminal One in July was a fantastic example of workers refusing to accept that we have no power over the multinationals. The unofficial action sparked media frenzy. There was a general agreement that this dispute was new and different from the strikes of yore because it was about time and life issues rather than money. A columnist in the Financial Times wrote that ‘the BA check-in staff, far from being 1970s-style union militants, were responding to new pressures…the BA walk-out was an intriguingly modern affair, with implications for the 21st century workplace that are worth pondering.’


Check-in staff have made a stand for everyone at BA. The electronic swipe card clocking-on system is just one more way of monitoring every second of a worker’s day. For BA, electronic systems are about making workers ‘more productive’ – by treating them as spare parts, to be fitted in when it’s busy and clocked off when it’s not, at a moment’s notice. For the mostly women workers, it is about further diminishing their ability to have some element of control over their shifts. One striker told Socialist Review, ‘I’ve never taken action before, but we all felt the swipe cards were a step too far. We’ve put up with a lot of changes already and they are really taking us for granted. What keeps me here is that we can arrange shifts and I know what I’m doing in advance, so me and my partner can plan stuff for the kids.’ Electronic monitoring could lead to the introduction of split shifts – for example, working for two hours, being sent home for two and then coming back again. For many women with children this would mean giving up work – even if they were paid more. The women at BA literally have nothing to lose in taking on their bosses.

If ‘flexibility’ was the buzzword of the 1990s, then surely ‘work/life balance’ is today. ‘Trade unions… have taken up the issue of “work/life balance” with the energy they once reserved for pay disputes,’ mused the Financial Times recently. It has become part of the Blair-speak of the last few years, along with ‘social inclusion’ and ‘citizenship’. But the term itself obscures a number of issues. Ongoing research from the Economic and Social Research Council is illuminating. Workers in Britain work the longest hours in Europe, with one in nine full time workers clocking more than 60 hours every week. Income protection insurers report increases in stress and mental health claims, workers are increasingly working through their lunch breaks and into the evenings and weekends, and a survey of young women last year found that over half felt ‘powerless or hopeless’ when they thought of the future. A comparison between attitudes to work in 1992 and 2000 found a massive drop in the level of work satisfaction, especially regarding workload, hours worked and job security.

The past 20 years have seen a rapid rise in the number of women working in Britain. Seventy percent of mothers in two parent households with at least one young child now choose to work, while almost half of single mothers (46 percent compared to 29 percent ten years ago) are in paid work, though most – like many of the women at Heathrow – work part time. But social provision of childcare facilities and paid parental leave have not caught up with this trend. A survey last year by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that only 8 percent of workplaces offered nursery and childcare subsidies – actually a fall from three years ago. The extortionate cost of professional childcare means that only 13 percent of parents use it, so the burden still falls overwhelmingly on parents, and predominantly women. One in five working parents manage to look after their children themselves, while a third rely on their partner and a quarter rely on a member of their family. In the end, part time work – and therefore, for most, a reduction in income – is by far the most common way of dealing with family commitments for women. In autumn 2000 there were 5.5 million women and 1.2 million men working part time in Britain.

There have been several changes in the law recently intended to address the question of ‘work/life balance’ – two weeks paid paternity leave, increased maternity leave and a legal right for parents to request flexitime (though, of course, no legal duty for the employer to give it!). But a survey for the Department of Trade and Industry has shown that there is little awareness of these changes in workplaces. Over 30 percent of bosses said they were unaware of the new parental leave provision, a quarter didn’t know the detail of maternity leave entitlements and 60 percent had no idea about time-off provision for workers needing to care for dependants.

Added to this lack of awareness (or interest) on the part of employers is the fact that most working parents can’t afford to take up these provisions fully. Paternity pay is set at just £100 per week, or 90 percent of pay for those on less. An increasing number of women are returning to work early to bring in the wages – 67 percent within 11 months of their child’s birth, compared with 45 percent in 1988. It is the low paid who are least able to take up parental leave, as they rely on full pay to make ends meet.

The same 20 years that have seen women entering the workforce on an unprecedented scale have also seen a global concentration of capital. The dismantling of welfare provision has coincided with privatisation and the restructuring of capital into ever-larger chunks through mergers and takeovers. For bosses, flexitime is more often used to increase productivity and screw down conditions than to meet the needs of workers’ lives. A key reason for the Heathrow dispute was the fear that the electronic clocking-on system would be used ultimately to introduce ‘annualised hours’, whereby the number of hours is set by the year, but shifts are arranged on a just-in-time basis – providing flexibility for the bosses but chaos for workers. It all adds up to workers increasingly feeling they are, as Henry Ford put it, ‘a pair of hands’ at the whim of supply and demand, rather than a human being. The Heathrow strikers blew a hole through this, recognising that BA needs them more than they need BA.

Deeper questions

The rhetoric of ‘work/life balance’ has been concerned mostly with issues of working parents and those with dependants, but in reality it raises much deeper, and older, questions about our relationship with work. Over 150 years ago Karl Marx wrote about our antagonistic relationship with work – the fact that we have to sell our labour power to a boss in return for money. He described how a worker ‘feels himself only when he is not working; when he is working he does not feel himself.’ That feeling is magnified today in an increasingly competitive and atomised working environment. Work is a means to an end for most people, rather than something that we find fulfilling – 81 percent of skilled manual workers and 70 percent of semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers say they work extra hours simply for the money, while managers do it to get ahead. Only 28 percent of skilled manual workers enjoy job satisfaction, compared to 66 percent of managers.

Men with young children, especially in those families where they are the only wage earner, work the longest hours of all. This fact tells us everything about life under capitalism. Workers do all the hours they can in order to provide for children they barely have time to see. As Marx put it, ‘Everything which the political economist takes from you in terms of life and humanity, he restores to you in the form of money and wealth… The worker is only permitted to have enough for him to live, and he is only permitted to live in order to have.’

Regardless of changes in the demography of workers in Britain, the fundamental issue is still a lack of control over what we do at work and how we do it. As Jeff Hyman of Glasgow Caledonian University put it, ‘To talk of work/life balance as being achievable through forms of temporal flexibility suggests an element of detachment from the realities of contemporary work.’

In 1930 economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay entitled ‘Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren’. His premise was that, assuming a 2 percent per year growth in the economy, within 100 years we would have ‘solved mankind’s economic problem’ – the necessity of constant labour to meet our basic human needs. Thus an age of leisure would be upon us and we could start to enjoy a ‘life’ in the now, rather than constantly saving for the future. The working day would be massively shortened and we could all be like ‘the lilies of the field, who toil not, neither do they spin’. His prediction of growth was about right for western economies, and we are approaching the end of his century, but if anything we feel further away from that life free from necessity.

The class divide that was so apparent in the depression of Keynes’s time is just as deep today. The vast wealth that workers have produced in the intervening years only serves to highlight the fact that we still have no real control over it. Huge amounts of our time and labour go to wasteful production – be it advertising, endless layers of bureaucracy, or the arms industry.

‘Work/life balance’ is ultimately a false divide. We can only achieve a real balance by reclaiming our labour power as a life-fulfilling pursuit, and that comes through control. Fighting for quality of life is not a 21st century phenomenon, but one as old as capitalism. The BA workers stand in a tradition of rank and file collective action stretching back to Eleanor Marx in the 1880s, fighting for the eight-hour working day, through the garment workers’ strike of 1912 in Lawrence, Massachusetts, when they sang for ‘bread and roses’. Fighting for our basic humanity is at the core of the struggle for a better world.

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