From the TUC

£33.6bn of unpaid overtime: Free work is costing us a lot

24 Feb 2017, by in Working Life

 5.3 million employees worked a grand total of 2.1 billion hours of unpaid overtime last year, putting in an average of 7.7 extra hours each week. If they had been paid for all their free work, on average they would have each received an extra £6,301.

Try out the TUC’s unpaid overtime calculator and see how much money you are missing out on.

Work Your Proper Hours Day

Today marks the TUC’s 13th annual Work Your Proper Hours Day. If those working unpaid overtime did it all at the start of the year, today is the first day when they would get paid. We are urging employers and workers to try to stick to their contracted hours today, and to use Work Your Proper Hours Day as a springboard to talk about reducing excessive unpaid overtime.

How on earth did we end up working for nothing?

Unpaid overtime is weakly regulated in the UK compared to other countries, both in cultural and legal terms. This weakness appears to stem from a divide that dates back more than a century. Historically, salaried workers could be expected to work some unpaid overtime when work pressures demand it.

In the 1840s, when the industrial revolution was well developed, the Census showed that 58% of UK workers were employed in manufacturing, farming or fishing. The comparable figure is now 10%, whilst the service industry dominates the UK economy.

Thus salaried work has greatly increased over the past hundred years. So what might have been slightly more acceptable back in the days when literacy was still a rare skill has now spread to affect one in five of the UK population.

Unpaid overtime is hurting workers and holding back employers

In the present day, whist hourly paid workers must be paid for every hour, salaried workers can be expected to work a “reasonable” amount of unpaid overtime meaning that more than 5 million of us are stuck with an entrenched overtime culture that eats into our work life balance.

Of course, nobody is saying that there should never be any unpaid overtime at all. Rather, employee flexibility should not be a blank cheque, otherwise some employers will try to overdraw.

Furthermore, 3.4 million UK employees are now regularly working more than 48 hours per week, with more than two-thirds of them working unpaid hours. Given that persistently working long hours is associated with an increased risk of developing serious health issues like heart disease, diabetes, stress and depression, long hours are bad news for workers and employers alike.

We can do things better in future

It is already clear that the UK economy will work in a different way after Brexit This may include temporary labour shortages in some sectors, which might further increase pressure to work unpaid overtime.

Employers will need to work with employees and their trade unions to draw up a route map to move away from long hours and towards greater productivity. This is likely to mean looking at work organisation and management as well as better training and investment in technology.

We need to start planning for a new model that will be economically successful while providing decent work. At this stage three things could be done:

  1. Establish new norms for working life. Awareness raising initiatives like Work Your Proper Hours Day should be followed up by promoting best practice. A 2005 joint TUC/ CBI/ government report spotlighted case studies of major employers moving away from long hours in order to increase productivity. The current government could help set the right tone and move the issue forward by repeating this initiative.
  2. Defend and strengthen the EU-derived Working Time Regulations, which at least give workers the right not to work more than 48 hours per week – which is more than enough unpaid overtime.
  3. A stronger legislative approach. This may be the best solution if excessive unpaid overtime still persists. The German system might be a good place to start, given that their economy is highly successful and productive. As far as I can see, the German Act on Working Time (Arbeitszeitgesetzspecifies that overtime hours must be paid extra or time in lieu taken within a prescribed period. Only those earning more than about £60,000 a year are exempt.

It makes me cross to think that so many UK workers are battling with long hours and entrenched unpaid overtime, whilst at the same time millions of others are battling unemployment and precarious work.

Everyone deserves a decent job with a proper work life balance, and we will judge employers and governments by whether they can deliver.