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The very possible path to a 30-hour working week

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This year, May Day fell after a run of three consecutive four-day working weeks. If you’re lucky enough to live in Queensland, then the Labour Day public holiday was be the culmination of a month of shorter working weeks.

Easter symbolises renewal and hope, and the Easter public holidays and Anzac Day give us a sense of how changing the way we work could create a different future.

Full-time workers do, on average, more than five hours of unpaid overtime a week. Full-time workers do, on average, more than five hours of unpaid overtime a week. Photo: Michele Mossop

In this future, we all have more time for our intimate relationships, building communities and enjoying more leisure. A future in which every weekend, for everyone, is a three-day weekend is a future worth fighting for.

Legally, logistically and financially, it’s entirely feasibly to move incrementally to a 30-hour working week over eight to 10 years. This gradual reduction in the working week would ensure no worker suffers a drop in their real pay.

Each year, we could reduce full-time weekly working hours by between 30 minutes and an hour, while modestly increasing wages to cover increased living costs. The long phase-in time would also allow businesses to plan and adjust accordingly.

Moreover, from a legal point of view, all we really need is a simple amendment to the Fair Work Act to change the national employment standard for a full-time working week. It now sits at 38 hours a week before workers receive overtime. It could be replaced with a simple table that sets out the year and date, as well as the phased-in full-time weekly working hours until it hits 30.

Technically, the changes are simple. The effects of a shorter working week, however, would be profound.

How did you feel coming into Easter this year? Personally, I was tired and stressed. The few extra days of rest and reflection restored my energy levels and allowed me to reset my thought processes.

For those of us in (usually greater than) full-time work, shorter working hours offer the promise of healthier, more balanced and enriched lives.

For instance, a shorter full-time working week contributes to better mental-health outcomes for workers. Australian National University researchers analysed the data of 8000 workers who took part in the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ household, income and labour dynamics survey. They found that working beyond 39 hours a week put employees at risk of developing mental-health problems.

Yet average Australian full-time working hours currently stand at 42.28 hours a week. That’s right: the average working week places full-time workers’ mental health at risk. This is insane.

This imbalance of overwork is linked to the suffering and dislocation of underemployed and unemployed workers. The Australia Institute’s survey of working hours in 2016 found full-time workers put in an average of more than five hours of unpaid overtime a week.

Each year, we could reduce full-time weekly hours by between 30 minutes and an hour, while modestly increasing wages to cover increased living costs.

Let’s tease this out. There are about 8.2 million full-time workers. So spreading out this unpaid overtime for just these full-time workers could create 38-hour-a-week jobs for more than one million Australians.

Of course, we can’t assume that removing every hour of unpaid overtime could translate into a new hour of work for underemployed and unemployed workers. Some unpaid overtime is unnecessary work that no one should do. Some relates to peak times in a project or campaign, which might not result in further and ongoing work.

Some of it, however, is work that could be done by other workers. Even if a minority of unpaid overtime was translated into new jobs, it would still change the lives of hundreds of thousands of our neighbours.

The stress of a full-time worker, therefore, is mirrored in the stress of a worker seeking more hours, like two subatomic particles stuck in a state of quantum entanglement – the workers may be separated by a large distance, say between Sydney and Melbourne, but their welfare cannot be described independently. We may experience our stress and anxiety individually but fundamentally it is connected.

Unemployment and underemployment itself cause great suffering and anguish. Moreover, underemployed and unemployed workers must a welfare system that assumes every worker should be able to find full-time permanent work.

This is just not the case anymore. We no longer offer enough opportunities for our workforce. There are about 20 job seekers for every job vacancy. Even when there is a vacancy, it’s often contingent or part-time work. For instance, in March this year, the Australian workforce set a new record: part-time workers performed 17 per cent of all hours worked.

As productivity improves and technology changes, we are shifting to a new world of work. Over the last three decades, average weekly hours worked by all Australians declined by more than three hours. With the continued growth of insecure work and automation, there is no reason why this trend should change.

Shorter working weeks will be part of our future. We face a choice, however, about how we get there. Either we continue on our path of increasing inequality and insecurity, where short-term benefits go to a handful of corporations and privileged actors, or we gradually reduce our working hours to enrich every community.

For the sake of a more balanced Australia, we must once again start trading our productivity gains for increased time to live our lives.

Godfrey Moase is assistant general branch secretary of the National Union of Workers.

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