Monday, April 25, 2005

BBC NEWS | Magazine | The new face of slave labour

BBC NEWS | Magazine | The new face of slave labour
By Paula Dear
BBC News website

Every day millions of professionals work for free - notching up hundreds of hours of unpaid overtime. It's not written into contracts, often it's not even spoken of. It's just part of the 21st Century workplace.
Are you putting in a day's work for free today? It may sound like a ridiculous notion. After all, it's only slaves or the most altruistic of people who work for nothing, isn't it?

But according to the Trades Union Congress (TUC) millions of Britons work so much unpaid overtime they are, on average, providing their employers with free work for the equivalent of nearly eight weeks of the year.

You could say those affected - predominantly the increasing number of white-collar workers in the UK - are providing their services voluntarily every day from 1 January to 25 February. That overtime is worth £23bn to employers, says the TUC's analysis of the Labour Force Survey.

Why do people tolerate the long hours culture, and why have new laws done little to eradicate it?

It's "no surprise", says TUC working time policy officer Paul Sellers, that around seven out of 10 of those doing the most unpaid overtime - up to 7.9 hours per week - are from the managerial and "professional" sectors, which have long been gripped by a long hours culture.

But there are surprises in the figures, full details of which will be published on 25 February when the TUC holds a national Work Your Proper Hours Day, he adds.

Around 55,000 plant and machine operatives are doing more than five hours of free overtime per week, and it's "not uncommon" for supermarket checkout staff - particularly in smaller stores - to work four or five hours extra.

Love job

The reasons and motivations for going that extra mile are hugely varied, ranging from overt pressure from bosses, to sheer dedication from employees.

In a TUC survey a couple of years ago, around 15% of people said they worked overtime because they loved their job.

"There's no problem with that if they are not under pressure. Some people like their work so much they want to do more of it, even if it's not paid," adds Mr Sellers.

The "culture of presenteeism" - the unspoken message that people should be seen to be staying late in order to "get on" - is more damaging, he says, but the most common reason for doing unpaid overtime is sheer workload.

Mark, who didn't want to reveal his surname, has worked in banking in the City of London for the last five years, and says the nature and volume of work means many will stay until it is done.

"Some will stay late to get ahead in their work, and give themselves an advantage in the morning. They might also feel that it looks better.

"Junior staff especially will not want to leave the office before anyone else, in case they are seen as being slack. People don't tend to feel resentful because the whole bonus and compensation system is geared up to rewarding people for their performance.

'Team spirit'

"The whole thing's just money driven. If people don't feel their bonus is reward enough they'll just leave and go somewhere else."

Occupational psychologist Sherridan Hughes, who owns career counselling service Careermax, says many people who come to them for advice from big banks and law firms are fed up of impossible workloads and long hours.

"People should not be doing unpaid overtime, of course, but there is often an unspoken pressure to be last in the office.

"In some of the best paid professions people can have no life at all, but then they are very well rewarded financially.

"But there has to be give and take - if working overtime becomes expected and people feel exploited then that's a bad thing."

But we're not all putting in the extra hours because of nasty bosses or competitive colleagues.

"In some smaller organisations there is more of a team spirit driving people - a feeling of letting the team down if you don't do that little bit extra," says Ms Hughes.

"Smaller companies are also more likely to have cash flow problems, and find it difficult to bring in extra staff."

But in the big firms, there's no excuse for people working persistently long hours, she says.

'Cushy number'

"People often tire of being told on a Friday night that they suddenly haven't got a weekend.

"But it takes a brave person to stand up and say that. Their job could be at risk, and if there was ever a question of redundancies it would be more likely that they were the person to be shown the door."

However attitudes are slowly changing, according to Ms Hughes, who herself admits to taking work home in the evenings and at weekends.

Shunning this kind of work ethic used to be frowned upon as "shirking" but these days people are more often lauded for leaving their chosen rat race in search of a more fulfilled life, she says.

A large proportion of their clients are teachers who are sick of increasing pressures and lack of reward.

In last year's TUC survey, teachers ranked second in a list of professions doing the most unpaid overtime.

Ironically though, said a spokesperson for the National Union of Teachers, there is no contractual limit to their working hours, outside of Scotland.

Technically they do no unpaid overtime, because their working day has no official end.

But as those responding to the Labour Force Survey are defining for themselves whether they work unpaid overtime, there are obviously a lot of teachers who believe they are effectively working for nothing for much of the week.

While moves to decrease teachers' workloads have been proposed by the government, the NUT has refused to sign the agreement because it would mean unqualified people covering teachers' classes at certain times.

"Teachers certainly believe they are working excessive hours," said the NUT.

"But at the same time if they think something is good for their children then they will do it."

Despite working 54-hour weeks, on average, and taking work home in the holidays, there is still a public perception that teachers have a "cushy number", she says.

The European Working Time Directive doesn't provide protection for teachers, she says, because the way the hours are averaged out across holiday periods means they come out with less than the maximum 48 hours per week allowed.

Even without those circumstances, the Working Time Directive has offered little protection for UK workers because it has been applied so loosely, says the TUC.

The facility to opt out of it took the "bite" out of the law, and still more than 3.5 million people are working beyond the maximum hours set.

The irony is the UK ranks poorly when it comes to productivity compared to other European nations with shorter working hours, says Paul Sellers.

He added: "We know, and it is obvious why, that people who work more hours do less per hour."

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