01 June 2005

The Web

Workers opting to beat the clock

Much has been written about the merits of limiting abuse when workers are forced to work overtime exceeding 48 hours per week. In an attempt to better regulate the enforcement of decent working conditions the European Union embarked on a radical programme to improve the capability, efficiency and competitiveness of the labour market.
It was to be achieved through the so-called Open Method of Co-ordination, whereby employment priorities are set by the European Commission. The Working Time directive was aimed at establishing across the EU the maximum number of hours to be worked each week. The reasons for imposing this directive were primarily two. The first was an attempt to create jobs by enticing employers to hire additional workers rather than engaging their existing employees on overtime. When the maximum working time per week is fixed to 48 hours which on average includes an extra 8 hours of overtime then the chances are that new jobs can be created particularly if there is more work to be done and which would exceed the 48-hour limit. In a typical case if a factory worker is statutory barred from exceeding the 48 hours then if work exists for say another 20 hours the management will be induced to employ another part timer. Thus someone who was waiting on the dole queue will be given an opportunity to contribute to his self esteem and the community once offered the job.
The EU is proposing other initiatives such as the introduction of lifelong learning and improving the employability of older workers. One such initiative was the report presented by the Socialist rapporteur Alejandro Cercas which spearheads a regulation that limits excessive overtime. It goes without saying that a motion to scrap the opt-out clause to such a working directive was overwhelmingly supported by the Socialists and the Greens in the European Parliament.
The abolition of the opt-out clause means that workers lose the right to work more than 48 hours a week including overtime. Furthermore there is a suggestion that the statutory limit for a working week is also reduced to below 48 hours as has been the case in France where it was reduced to 35 hours in a bid to improve the creation of new jobs. These statutory maximum figures may be exceeded in some countries, in the context of working time flexibility schemes allowing weekly hours to be varied around an average over a reference period (as permitted by the EU Directive).
In Finland, weekly hours may be varied over a 52-week reference period, if an average 40-hour week is maintained. In the Netherlands, the 48-hour maximum must be maintained over a 13-week reference period. If no agreement is reached between employer and trade union (or works council), statutory maximum hours are nine per day, but by agreement daily hours may be extended to 12, as long as average weekly hours do not exceed 60 over a four-week reference period (and do not exceed 48 over a 13-week period).
In Portugal, a 50-hour week may be worked, as long as the 40-hour average is maintained over a four-month reference period. In Spain, weekly hours may be higher if a 40-hour average is maintained over a reference period; and in the UK, weekly hours may exceed 48 as long as this average is maintained over a 17-week reference period.
At this point we must consider the background against which the EU Commission is trying to improve job prospects. One notes the average rate of unemployment in the 15 countries is double that of Malta. In parts of Germany it reaches a high figure of 13 per cent. In sheer contrast such initiatives are not welcome in Malta as it seems that the EU directive is unanimously opposed by unions and political parties - a very rare occasion - acting in unison.
It seems that at the cost of not creating new jobs politicians are very sensitive not to tamper with the workers’ right to work as much as they like - a lax attitude of drop-dead-at-work-if-you-have-to. We have seen this manifested in recent attempts by the Prime Minister, Dr Gonzi, who is committed to working together with other countries such as Britain and Germany to retain the opt-out clause.
Put simply the attitude in Malta is that we want to retain the citizen’s right to maximise the take-home pay wherever this is possible. Ideologically politicians cannot be seen as tampering with the inalienable right of citizens to the pursuit of money even though from a macro economic point of view we are thus hindering the creation of additional productive and sustainable jobs.
So if we object to the working directive does this mean that our industry is working at its peak level of efficiency and that we are scoring a high level of productivity?
This is certainly not the case. We definitely do need all the political will to maintain better discipline at work and cannot elude ourselves that maintaining the status quo will be an option. We have been in Europe for over a year and although there has been a lot of scare mongering prior to EU accession that workers will lose their overtime, this has not happened. Our workers are still doing overtime. Essentially it is still the choice of workers to accept or refute overtime. Sceptics do ask: does this mean that by defending workers rights we can ignore at our peril the other side of the equation given that the rate of creation of sustainable new jobs has slowed down?
Can we honestly say that all the 47,000 state workers are gainfully employed and that they are producing at their optimum rate?
How can we forget the low rate of productivity in the roads maintenance division not to mention the abysmal low utilisation rate of dockyard workers? Who is paying for all this? So while we carry on defending the workers’ right for the retention of the opt-out clause we must at the same time take disciplinary action to ensure that productivity reaches the norm of other accession countries.
Indeed the cost to business of high-absence, poor morale and low staff retention is often a bi-product of excessive working hours. Having reached the cross-road can we beat the clock? The answer is yes if by judicious use of flexible and remote working, shift work and job-sharing we can improve national productivity levels and augment working conditions. These are some of the solutions available to employers looking to beat the clock, keep a cap on long hours and improve productivity and morale.

The author is a partner in PKFMALTA an audit and business advisory firm

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