Sunday, June 03, 2007

Millions Of Australians Demand The Return Of The 40 Hour Work Week

Howard's Claim That Australians "Have Never Had it So Good" Will Haunt Him Into The Election

Some 2.5 million Australians are working more than 40 hours a week and they're sick of it. They want their lives back, they want to spend more time with their family and friends. But under changes to the wages and working conditions of most Australia, prime minister John Howard has created a reality where millions of Australians will be working more hours, for less pay.

It will be interesting to see how Howard tries to convince these millions of aggravated Australians that they've "never had it so good", as he infamously stated a few months back, when this is clearly not the case for millions of Australians, struggling with heavy mortgages, longer work weeks and rising fuel, energy and food costs :

Men now put in more than 45 hours a week on average, but more than a third would prefer 38 to 40 hours. Women without dependent children want to work between 32 and 35 hours, not their current average of 40. And women with children favour working 28 hours.

"People have said it's good to have diversity and flexibility in work hours but Australian workers just crave the old standard working week that's been lost over the last two decades," said Brigid van Wanrooy, a post-doctoral fellow at the Workplace Relations Centre at the University of Sydney.

This week the Australian Bureau of Statistics revealed almost a third of Australians work unsocial hours and 37 per cent do extra hours, about half of them for no extra pay.

Dr van Wanrooy said 38 per cent of full-time workers - or 2.5 million people - wanted to work fewer hours, according to the biggest survey. "The trend to long hours has not been a result of workers' preferences."

Australians work some of the longest hours in the industrialised world. Thirty-five per cent of male full-time workers and 19 per cent of full-time working women put in 50 hours or more a week.

The true battle John Howard has to face in the coming election is how to convince the people that working longer hours, and experiencing wealthier lives, with all the trappings of financial success, is better than whatever passes for true happiness. Because there appears to be plenty of Australians who are doing well, but are not all that happy with their lives, mostly because they spend less time with their friends and/or family :
Australians are richer and healthier than ever but busier lives have forced us to re-evaluate what makes us happy.

Increasing numbers of Australians are discovering that despite the booming economy and rampant consumerism, work and wealth may not be the true twin paths to bliss.

Surveys published this week erode traditional ideas about hard work and sacrifice getting you ahead; the Australian Bureau of Statistics says nearly one in five works unpaid overtime. A Housing Industry Association report put housing affordability at its lowest in 23 years nationally, with mortgage repayments accounting for more than 30 per cent of an average first home buyer's income. A typical monthly repayment now tops $3000.

Once a financial problem, the disconnect between salary and the Australian dream of owning a home has become a sociological phenomenon that has erupted into a political pain that spills across generations, creating tensions and regrets and forcing a re-evaluation about what constitutes happiness.

Paul Shepanski, the co-author of a report on the connection between working hours and family breakdown for the Relationships Forum, says there is deep concern about the impact of economic change on relationships. The report found a strong link between long and unpredictable work hours and the breakdown of family and other relationships.

"People are feeling that, despite all this wealth, there is something rotten in the system," says Shepanski, a former partner of Boston Consulting Group. "There's a sense that the pressure just keeps mounting but there is no pay-off for increasing productivity in the workplace and all the labour-saving devices that we have at home."

The Relationships Forum research, published in March, showed Australia is the only high-income country that combines very long average working hours with a high level of work at unsocial times - during weeknights and weekends - and a significant proportion of casual employment. After incremental change in working patterns over 30 years Australia has emerged as one of the world's most intensely work-focused countries, but it has created a human tragedy.

"The past three decades of prosperity experienced by Australia have come at an unexpected price," Shepanski says.

More than 20 per cent of employees work 50 hours or more each week, and more than 30 per cent regularly work on weekends. About 2 million people now lose at least six hours of family time to work Sundays, and those hours are not fully compensated for during the week.

"The cold statistics provide vital clues to the thousands of relationships in crisis across our country. Long and atypical working patterns are associated with dysfunctional family environments," Shepanski says.

All this is causing huge problems for Howard, who is happy to push the line "you've never had it so good" as a pre-election reminder to supporters to hold fast.

Howard, who has undisputed claim to the economy card, is punting that voters will focus on his economic management advantage closer to the election, as voters have tended to do. But Howard cannot be sure the tide against him can be so turned.

Both Howard and Rudd are pitching that the good times will continue to roll, but ordinary Australians are shouldering the burden of paying for the good times. With health, education, welfare and superannuation increasingly privatised, risks once borne by government and business have been transferred onto households. The International Monetary Fund is worried about this global trend. The household sector "has increasingly and more directly become the shock absorbers of last resort in the financial system", it warned in 2005.

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