Shorter work-hours: They say less pay, we say more pay

Jared Phillips The Spark April 2009

Resulting from the Job Summit in February, the government has now announced the introduction of the Job Support Scheme. At the time of writing, between 20-30 companies have taken up the government’s offer. Who benefits from the 9-day working fortnight?

In the past socialists have successfully fought for a shorter working week for the same pay. This has happened in the construction industry in Australia and in the meat industry in New Zealand. We need to raise these arguments again and also raise them at a higher level. Continual productivity gains make it possible for us to move to a society in which workers can consciously organise and limit the amount of time spent working while increasing their leisure time. Oppositely, under the capitalist system, the lives of the working class are organised by the rhythms of production. This is clearly the case when we look at the way hours of work are currently being re-regulated.

Under the Job Support Scheme an employer that employs more than one hundred staff will be able to introduce, by agreement, a variation to the employment contract (individual or collective) that will reduce the working hours of workers under the scheme by up to ten hours per fortnight (without reducing their hours below thirty per week). Each fortnight a worker who is under the scheme will be receive a government contribution of the minimum wage for five hours, or $62.50, for the tenth work day. Workers under the scheme are also entitled to close the resultant income deficits through other allowances or trade-offs, such as company top-ups, or the use of accrued annual leave. Within each firm, the number of employees that are able to be part of the scheme is determined by the number of potential redundancies that are prevented by its implementation. To be brought into the scheme an employee has to have previously averaged thirty seven and a half hours per week.

The public is led to believe that the main benefactors of the scheme will be workers whose jobs are potentially on the line. There is some truth to this. However, the crux of this scheme is that in order for workers to keep one thing – this thing being a job – then workers must lose another thing, in this case a part of their income.

As has been pointed out by Workers Rights Campaign (Christchurch) spokesperson Paul Piesse, employers are not job agencies that exist to keep workers in employment, rather, employers use workers to make company profits. They will not be ‘saving jobs’. They will be required to withhold redundancies for a six-month period (which is the maximum length of time they can spend in the scheme) while scrimping on their wage outlays. Government income, generated by workers themselves, will under-write this saving for the bosses.

In terms of the creation of profit in the production process it is better for the bosses to have workers turning profits over, rather than being idle. However, anybody who understands anything about political economy will also understand that there will be a tendency amongst employers who are reducing hours (by way of the scheme or simply by cutting hours) to intensify work so that productivity outcomes from the reduced working week are similar to those of the ordinary working week.

While it is bad enough that workers are being asked to give up part of their incomes in a regulated way through the scheme, it should also be emphasised that the majority of cuts to hours will occur outside the scheme in the unorganised and weaker sectors of the workforce. Casual workers, temps, and workers employed by small businesses will be worse off. The scheme will reinforce the insecure nature of these employment relationships and these workers will have almost no say as to how their hours are reduced because they have no guaranteed hours of work.

Instead of taking cuts to resolve the downturn in favour of capital, socialists seek to maximise resistance to the point at which the whole capitalist system is brought into question and seen for what it is – a system that cannot deliver.

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