We can’t afford a US culture of overwork

Excessive working hours are unfair and unproductive - the need to take back control of our working lives is more pressing than ever

Today is National Work Your Proper Hours Day – an important opportunity to reaffirm our rights in the workplace.

When it comes to our working lives, we have a lot to learn from our EU neighbours. We spend hours longer in the office every week than the majority of European employees – a full 6 hours more than our German counterparts, for example. On top of that, 5 million of us regularly find ourselves working unpaid overtime, forking out over £31.5bn-worth of free labour to our employers every year.

It’s unfair and exhausting, and worst of all it makes no difference to Britain’s economic competitiveness. We trail the likes of Germany and the Netherlands in terms of productivity. All those extra hours clocked are a waste of our time.

The UK’s work-life balance is seriously out of kilter, millions of us clocking up hours of wasted time even as comparable numbers struggle with the reverse issue of underemployment and low wages. Too many of us have no control of our working lives. And things could be about to get much worse.

What legal protection we do enjoy – paid annual leave, a maximum work week of 48 hours – is thanks to the European Time Directive. With Brexit on the horizon, this is now under threat.

Wall clocks

Image credit: J Mark Dodds

Theresa May, a self-proclaimed champion of the just about managing,’ should be doubling down on these important workplace standards, following examples like Sweden who have been experimenting with a six hour work day to better distribute work and time across the population. Our own research has shown huge social and economic benefits.

But instead, her Brexit strategy looks increasingly based on closer ties with the US, where workers spend on average 49 hours a week in the workplace, with zero minimum standards for statutory holiday pay. One in four workers have no paid vacation whatsoever.

US labour rights consistently come second to the interests of employers. In the US, workers are hired at-will”, meaning employees can be fired at any time and for any reason. This places an extraordinary amount of power in the hands of US employers.

Most US states also employ the right-to-work” law which are crippling for organised labour, and directly contributes to diminishing union membership in the US and their ability to secure better working conditions and wages for workers.

All this has big implications for the UK post-Brexit because lower levels of US worker protection would put Britain at a competitive disadvantage in any proposed trade deal. This is especially true if the deal is anything like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which put the rights of corporations over and above those of workers.

Some organisations based in the UK could look to move to the US where they know they will not have to worry about basic labour rights or trade unions posing a risk to corporate profits. They will also not have to worry about paying the statutory four weeks paid vacation time imposed on UK employers.

It’s highly likely that UK workers could find rights we have long taken for granted – including protections against overwork and guaranteed paid holidays – watered down or lost altogether in a race to the bottom with the US.

Brexit is a real threat. But together we can fight against any deal that trades away control of our working lives. On Work Your Proper Hours Day, let’s stand up for our rights at work.

If you value great public services, protecting the planet and reducing inequality, please support NEF today.

Make a one-off donation

£5 £10 £25 £50 £100

Make a monthly donation

£3 £5 £10 £25 £100