Working Eight to Eight

Aileen It's Budget Day here, and I'm finding it difficult to concentrate what with the sense of impending doom. In the weeks leading up to today's budget the government had been in talks with the representatives of most of the Irish unions on how best to cut public sector pay. Details of what was being discussed were leaked, and most of the proposals seemed to address aspects of working time including:

- Paying overtime at flat rates rather than time and half. - Introducing an 8am-8pm core day during which no overtime payments would apply. - The introduction of 12 unpaid leave, the possibility of staff working a small number of additional hours per week and the elimination of privilege days.

Many of these would change our standard working day. That is, instead of the norm being defined as working an eight hour day from 9-5, in the public sector at least, the norm would become an eight hour day worked somewhere between 8 am to 8 pm. The motivation is to save money by paying people less, by redefining "over-time" as "normal-time". The states wants to balance it's books by cutting the public sector wage bill (rather than, for example, tackling our particularly unequal tax system). It's important however to think about what the other effects of the removal of the 9-5 working time standard might be.

Have a look at the opening scenes in the Billy Wilder film "The Apartment" above. Go to 2 minutes, 26 seconds in. The voice-over says  "The hours in our department are 8.50 by 5.20". Hands move on a clock, a bell is heard, and uniformly everyone stands up and makes their way to the lift. This is standardization of working time; the same numbers of hours, worked at the same time, by an entire workplace.Remember what Dolly Parton sang

Tumble outta bed and I stumble to the kitchen Pour myself a cup of ambition Yawnin', stretchin', try to come to life Jump in the shower and the blood starts pumpin' Out on the streets the traffic starts jumpin' And folks like me on the job from nine to five

In Dolly's world the traffic starts jumping because she is joined on her way to work by a flood of people, all commuting at the same time. This is a world with a collective rhythm created by institutionally defined events (the shared starting and finishing time of the working day). When you have a twelve hour core day, people no longer go to and come home from work at the same time. Our alarm clocks are no longer in sync. Working time becomes de-standardized.

In some ways, there are advantages to this. With increasingly both parents working, in a society with little support for those with caring responsibility, flexibility can necessary to be able to balance the demands of paid and unpaid work. De-standardization can allow workers to be able to vary their working lives to suit their non-work schedules (commuting at times that avoid traffic, allowing parents to adjust their day to their children's crèche or school hours). Longer service delivery similarly allows workers access to services outside their working hours.

However there are downsides. With the de-standardization of time, we no longer share the same schedules. Increased complexity of schedules makes it harder to organize social events, to meet with each other. It is the difficulty of negotiating numerous time-tables that leads to a sense of time squeeze and stress, despite the reduction of working hours in society. Similarly, if parents have no control over the flexible hours they are required to work, de-standardization of time can make it harder to match their working schedule with those of their children's crèches and schools. Finally, a longer "standard", in which working 8-8 is seen as "normal", could have the effect of lengthening working hours for those who do not work "fixed" hours, particularly those in white collar work who have "control" over their own working hours.