Saturday, April 5, 2008

8-hour-day melts into air

Written after working a 14-hour Friday...

Workers suffer from 12 hour working days! Scandal! Is it some week-on, week-off mine industry roster? Third-world sweatshop conditions? No, it's how long many Australian workers spend on their working day if you count travelling to and from work. So much for "8 hours work, 8 hours rest, 8 hours leisure"!

Unions NSW has called for change to the average commuting time for many of the 117,000 workers who live on the Central Coast, at four hours a day. An ABC radio broadcast on March 18 interviewed Unions NSW secretary John Robertson about the call for some of this exorbitant travel time to be paid work time. Workers can take their laptop on the train (or do call centre work with their handsfree mobile in the car?). Why not be paid? Robertson says, "We've for years had this notion of, you can work from home and no-one monitoring whether you're sitting at your computer keyboard every minute of the day. It's about output."

The idea in itself is not a bad one. The ABC's Lisa Miller reported, "According to a report by the Australia Institute, full-time workers a few years ago were spending an average four hours and 10 minutes travelling to and from work. It was worse for people in Sydney - four hours and 43 minutes a week. Next was Melbourne, then Brisbane."

But apart from the possibility of getting workers some more money and perhaps substituting travel for part of their long work day, this has broader implications.

When unions won the 8-hour day in Australia, long commuting times would have been something of an oddity for most. Those who couldn't walk to work probably caught a short tram trip. Around Footscray where I live, there used to be several tram lines, independent of the main grid -- only going as far as Yarraville, but no doubt cutting down what would otherwise be a pesky half-hour walk to work from Yarraville up to Footscray. Now there is one tram line, to further-afield Moonee Ponds, but there are also two major train lines converging at Footscray -- going twenty or more kilometres west and south-west respectively. Commuting to Werribee in the south-west takes at least a half-hour, and a lot more if you count time taken to get to the station and waiting for the train. Even public transport can only do so much over long distances!

Cars are no better. When I worked at Hoppers Crossing, near Werribee, it was only a 20-minute drive to get there (in the opposite direction to the main city-bound traffic flow). But as Winfried Wolf points out in Car Mania, you need to factor in a lot more than travel time with cars. How many hours a week do you work just to pay for the car, and then parking, petrol, maintenance, insurance? How long do you work to pay for the 15 square metre or so area of land you have allocated to car parking at home? And that doesn't count the social cost of car accidents, asthma, acid rain, and global warming, but it's a start.

In this neoliberal labour market, workers take the jobs they can get whether they are down the road or on the other side of town. Before working in Hoppers Crossing, I had been doing a similar job 30km in the opposite direction, in Moorabbin (my then travelling time per week: about 10 hours -- about 15 if I had travelled by train). At the Hoppers job, one of my workmates commuted every day from Mentone, just the other side of Moorabbin! If only we had known we could have swapped jobs!

The call from Unions NSW is a good sign that unions are beginning to recognise the irrational assault on working conditions by addressing the length of the working day. Other unions like the Victorian building and manufacturing unions have in recent years made a concerted push (with considerable success) for a 36-hour work week, or nine-day fortnight in practice. More money is important in times of skyrocketing house prices, but is unlikely to keep up so that low income earners are conceivably going to be able to afford their own house any time soon in the existing economic order. On the other hand, reducing the appalling length of work and commuting time could have enormous benefits across the board: less transport pollution, less personal and family stress, less stress-related health problems, and on the other side... what are workers going to do with all their spare time? There's always the pokies and the Playstation, for others there will be more fishing trips or gardening... and the potential for more participation in society in any way, including political action.

It's time to go back to demanding the 8-hour day!

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