Working Hours and the French ‘No’ Vote
Business Voice, July 2005
And so the French, the Danes and the Dutch have voted overwhelmingly ‘no’ to the proposed European constitution. Across the whole of Europe there is a ground swell of opinion against what is seen as unnecessary EU bureaucracy. In no area is this more significant than in business, work and employment. Since 1997, firms in Britain have been saddled with something like 4,500 additional laws and regulations. The recent proposal by the European Parliament that Britain’s working time opt-out should be ended is further confirmation of a head in the sand attitude by ‘Old Europe’ politicians.
Britain has one of the most flexible labour forces in the world. It is, with the possible exception of Poland, probably the most dynamic EU economy. Globalisation is continuing apace with China, India and other Asian countries queuing up to take jobs from the advanced economies. To compete, companies have to flexible working practices with employees who are highly motivated and committed. But it is not only in international markets that businesses suffer. Last month Robert Wiseman Dairies, a major supplier to supermarkets, reported that the recently introduced EU Working Time Directive applied to the transport industry, would cost the company £1.8million a year. This was to compensate drivers for their fewer working hours. But it was creating an added problem in that drivers were leaving the industry, producing skill shortages.
It is exactly these employees that put in the long working hours. I recently analysed data collected by the British Household Panel. This survey, on an annual basis, collects information on the attitudes and life styles of a representative cross section of the UK population. It shows that managers and professionals work the longest hours. So, too, do the self-employed and small business owners. Admittedly, those on very low incomes also work long hours to pay the bills and the mortgage. No-one condones that.
But what is fascinating about the data is that, with the exception of the latter group, those who work the longest hours are the most satisfied with their jobs. They are also fitter and less likely to fall ill. This is particularly the case among entrepreneurs upon whom the future prosperity of the country depends It is confirmed in a recent survey by the Bank of Scotland. Small businesses contribute £500 billion to the UK economy every year, more than half of the country’s GDP. This survey reveals a strong link between business growth and the long working hours of their owners and managers. More than one-half of the small businesses surveyed with annual growth rates of ten per cent over the last three years were headed by owners-managers who worked on average more than nine hours per day. Assuming a six day week, that is roughly a 54 hour working week.
What right have politicians in the European Parliament stopping these committed entrepreneurs growing their job and wealth creating small businesses? And often with their homes second mortgaged and with bank loans to service? No such working hours directives, I suggest, constrain the entrepreneurial thirst of small business owners in India and china.
Equally, in the knowledge economy, research scientists, software designers, media executives as well as countless public sector professionals are dedicated to their jobs. These are the people for whom, like myself, ‘time flies’. We work to deadlines, we are absorbed in our jobs, committed to the task at hand, dedicated to pleasing our end users and make no clear distinction between ‘work’ and ‘leisure’. We rarely completely ‘switch off’. Work is part of our psyche, an inherent feature of our personal identity. How does a Working Hours Directive handle that? Can it monitor our thought waves? Will our computers and laptops be monitored? Since when have we ever been nine-to-fivers? I do not know of one such colleague. The reason is that knowledge workers quit their jobs if they lose interest in their jobs or if the pressures get to great. And so there is a process of self-selection at work. Those who work long hours choose to do so because it is a huge source of personal self-satisfaction just as it is with entrepreneurs and small business owners.
The reason why left-leaning European politicians get so excited about long working hours is they assume it has health outcomes; that people who work long hours suffer from stress and other problems. But there is no evidence to support this assertion. These health outcomes are more likely the result of heavy-handed management and inter-personal problems in the workplace. This is why the EU politicians are being dishonest in trying to stop the UK’s opt-out clause through presenting it as an aspect of ‘health and safety’ legislation that only requires majority voting.
But the MEPs proposal still has to go to the EU’s Council of Ministers where the arithmetic of a blocking minority means there is a chance that the opt-out will not be abolished. The accession countries of Poland, the Czech Republic and the rest are only to fully aware of the pitfalls of their own regulated economies of the past. They are even more aware of the contrasting performance of the UK economy and Eurozone. The concept of a Social Europe was great in the days that pre-dated the internet, global supply chains and the subsequent incorporation of India and China into the global economy. But as recent referenda in Europe have demonstrated, feet-on-the ground citizens have had enough. Blackpool donkeys are to have employment rights with an hour off for lunch this summer under rules imposed by the local council. Employees are not donkeys and for MEPs to regard us as such is to make them to appear as fools. No wonder the Americans have coined the term ‘Old Europe’. A suitable case for re-invention?
© Professor Richard Scase