Applaud the big switch off for 1 million French workers
Workers in the IT and consultancy sectors in France will not have to answer work E-mails or phone calls before 9 AM or after 6PM, it was announced this week. This development is to be warmly applauded. In France and Germany, white collar workers are considered inefficient if they are always working late, whilst in the UK there are some occupations where this has become expected.
In this country, where the norms and rules on working time are too weak, far too many people find themselves disadvantaged by developments in technology that should have made working life easier. Some enterprises act as if their employees’ time is of no value, with the result that the health of their workforce suffers and exhausted employees fall into making bad decisions. We urgently need to get back to more human ways of working.
It always suits some opponents of employment rights to make fun of France. The Daily Mail, for example, said “new laws help argument that France is the laziest country in Europe”*. The reality is quite different. French managers had become concerned that the proliferation of smart phones and other advances in technology meant that they and their staff were increasing working in an unhealthy and inefficient way, worrying about answering trivial messages late into the evening.
The General Confederation of Managers, which represents them, then brokered an agreement with the employers in the worst affected sectors. Given that working long hours is seen as inefficient, these companies could see potential business benefits in the new rules.
Right wing critics who say that this kind of thing could never happen in this country studiously avoid looking at German economy . An inconvenient fact for the naysayers is that in the acknowledged “power house of Europe” several large successful companies, including Volkswagen, and the German civil service have adopted similar rules. This begs the question, if they can succeed without working unsocial hours, why can’t we do the same?
The French and German agreements still allow workers to deal with exceptional circumstances that demand extra hours. That is fine, but it will very firmly remain the exception and not the rule.
As we emerge from the recession it is quite likely that the growing economy will give the UK’s long hours culture another turn of the screw. People at work will then be focusing more on the quality of working life than they have done during the recession.
Thus, in the coming period, more will have to be done to rein in the long hours culture for the substantial minority of UK workers who are affected by these pressures.
The driver of the positive developments in France and Germany has been traditional collective bargaining. That must also be part of the solution in the UK, but part of the responsibility must also fall on government, and on employers organisations and good enterprises, who should promulgate best practice.
The Coalition has firmly set its face against tightening the Working Time Directive, but it is also completely obvious that better rules to prohibit dangerous overwork will also be needed if we are to build a country where jobs are all fair and decent.