Citation: Sharon Beder, 'The rising levels of debt that stop workers clocking off', Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August 2003, p. 15

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

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It is no coincidence that Australians work longer hours than workers in most other OECD countries and at the same time Australian households have some of the highest levels of debt in the world. The two trends are intimately related.

In response to the ACTU’s suggestion that the work week be limited to a maximum of 48 hours per week, Joe Hockey argued that people had a right to work as long as they liked. However, apart from the workaholics amongst us, most people work long hours because they have to, not because they want to.

Decreasing wages and rising debt levels have been a major cause of rising work hours. Not only do individuals have to work longer to maintain the same standard of living but more members of the family have to work to maintain that standard of living. In fact for families headed by less educated workers, family income has dropped whilst workloads have increased.

Increasing debt levels are in turn caused by escalating house prices and rising levels of consumerism. The consumer goods necessary to attain a normal and respectable standard of living keep increasing and therefore the hours of work necessary to earn an income to attain them also have to increase. Those unable to afford these goods, even though earlier generations happily did without them, feel that they are socially excluded and poor.

Nor should we ignore the fact that it suits employers to have their employees work long hours. Firms have their own debts that have to be paid back and this can be done more quickly (and therefore at less cost) if the equipment they borrowed the money to purchase is used round the clock. Employers prefer to have fewer employees working longer hours because it is easier to find and train a smaller number of quality employees with suitable work experience. Even if they have to pay overtime rates, it is more economic for employers to have fewer workers who work long hours than to hire extra employees because of the overheads involved including insurance, benefits, and costs involved in recruitment and training.

The advantage to employers of having employees who need to pay off debts from purchases already made, is that those employees will be more willing to please and more willing to work long hours when asked. Even when workers are not paid overtime, they will often work long hours because of job insecurity. Such workers are keen to please employers so they will be kept on, or in the case of temporary or casual workers, given future assignments.

R.J.Kriegler noted in his essay on ‘Workers and Bosses’: “One cannot stress enough the indirect industrial control that an employer can have over a work-force that is deeply entrenched in time payments of one kind or another. Strikes, lay-offs, lock-outs, or simple cutbacks in overtime loom as serious threats to the livelihoods of workmen’s families and they are easily encouraged to join the ranks of the other hard-working, obedient and industrially docile instruments of production.”

As ‘Tennessee’ Ernie Ford’s song Sixteen Tons, says:

You load sixteen tons, and what do you get?
Another day older and deeper in debt
St. Peter don’t you call me, ‘cause I can’t go
I owe my soul to the company store.

But it is not only the workers who find themselves compelled to work long hours. Management executives and professionals often work 70-80 hours per week with extra work in times of heavy demand. Over eighty percent of professional scientists and engineers surveyed by the Association of Professional Engineers, Scientists, and Managers of Australia (APESMA) said they regularly worked unpaid overtime.

In such situations those who refuse to work these hours will be passed over when it comes to promotions because it is taken as an indicator of lack of commitment to the company. Juliet Schor, author of The Overworked American, noted: “For every aspiring manager determined to limit his or her hours, there are usually many more willing to give the company whatever time it demands.” And such jobs often carry such high salaries, benefits and status that they are in demand so employers have most of the bargaining power.

However, as the ACTU notes, such long hours come at a price and that price is not only to employees whose health, safety and welfare is compromised. Tired employees are not productive or innovative employees and they are prone to accidents. More progressive employers recognise that requiring employees to work long hours costs them more in the long run.

The trend towards longer working hours, and the rising debt that encourages it, need to be curtailed if we want to ensure the quality of Australian lives into the future.