“You’ll want all day tomorrow, I suppose?” said Scrooge.
“If quite convenient, sir.”
“It’s not convenient,” said Scrooge, “and it’s not fair. If I was to stop you half a crown for it, you’d think yourself ill-used, I’ll be bound?”
The clerk smiled faintly.
“And yet,” said Scrooge, “you don’t think me ill-used, when I pay a day’s wages for no work.”
The clerk observed it was only once a year.
“A poor excuse for picking a man’s pocket every twenty-fifth of December!” said Scrooge.
How ironic it seems to me that we are hearing about the potential of reduced rights for workers at Christmas time. Reports are circulating that post Brexit, the Working Time Regulations will be an early target for change or even repeal. The gutter press would have us believe that this is about reducing that great enemy of the economy; red tape. That it is about taking back control of our laws, reducing the power of those meddling European judges. It was even suggested by one ‘newspaper’ that the removal of the maximum 48-hour working week was a victory for all those hard working families (e.g. not anyone in receipt of benefits, claiming asylum or anyone else that isn’t the appropriate type of deserving poor) as they will be able to earn so much more overtime by way of their zero hours contracts, low paid gig economy task, modern day sweatshop or otherwise insecure employment that pervades our labour market.
But make no mistake, reducing hard fought for employment rights is what it is really all about.
For the uninitiated, the Working Time Regulations aren’t about unelected European bureaucrats, red-tape, immigration or anything else that the press routinely stir up hatred against. Nor were they about improving employer brand, Glassdoor score, employee engagement percentage, winning the war for talent or any other HR related intention.
The Working Time Regulations are about health, safety and wellbeing. They provide, inter alia, limits on the amount of work and hours that people can undertake to ensure that health, safety and wellbeing – of the worker and of others.
Naturally, some relevant facts were left out of the headlines. Specifically that, in relation to the maximum 48-hour working week, employees have had the ability from the introduction of the Regulations in 1998, to opt out. To choose to work more, if they wish to do so. There is no ability to opt out of other provisions of the act, namely those that relate to rest. 20 minutes rest after six hours work. At least a day off a fortnight. 20 days paid holiday a year*. Not too much to ask, is it?
Do we really want to consider taking any of this away? Do we really want to have a society in which people can be exploited by unscrupulous employers, or can even choose to work themselves into a state of ill-health? Put the health and safety of others at risk because of fatigue?
Maybe it is a terrible inconvenience for some employers that they have to provide the occasional break, paid holidays or rest periods. Maybe it’s just too much of an administrative burden for organisations to monitor the working hours of the people that work for them, or to provide an opt-out form, or check the health of a night-worker. Perhaps the challenging economic position in which we find ourselves is all the fault of the Working Time Regulations. Perhaps that all employees want for Christmas, is a return to Dickensian working conditions? is the ability to work more overtime?
Vital employment rights and protections must not, cannot, be sacrificed in the name of reducing red-tape, via the Brexit back door. Otherwise the working conditions of Scrooge and Marley will not be an amusing fictional exchange, confined to history, but the reality of some in our labour market.
*It should also be noted, for anyone wishing to jump on the Europe bashing bandwagon, that in respect of holidays, it is the UK that extended the right form 20 days leave (which could include eight bank holidays) to 28 a few years ago. I’ll stop now.