by Phil Duncan
A Newshub story yesterday, written by Tony Wright, highlights the longer hours workers in New Zealand have to put in to make ends meet. It takes recent OECD data to build stats on hours worked by full-time employees in NZ and countries that are comparable, although the writer couldn’t find figures for the United States and Canada. Nevertheless, it is clear that workers in this country are working more hours than workers in Britain, western Europe and Australia.
While Tony Wright has done a good job, it should be noted that, if anything, the stats he has compiled, downplay the actual number of hours put in, on average, by NZ workers. What doesn’t show up here is that many full-time workers also have part-time jobs and many part-time workers have several part-time jobs. And the stats often won’t show up the full hours worked in the ‘black economy’ as people are reluctant to fill out these hours for the census and the Household Labour Force survey.
Household Labour Force Surveys and censuses do, however, show large numbers of workers here putting in over 50 hours a week. According to the 2013 census, 20% of employed people were working more than 50 hours a week (although this was ‘officially’ down from 25% in 2001).
The latest (2013) census declares cheerily, “The proportion of employed people working 50 hours or more per week dropped to 20 percent in 2013, according to census results released by Statistics New Zealand today. This is down from 23 percent in 2006, and 25 percent in 2001.” This neatly sidesteps, however, the fact that the percentage working 40-49 hours has actually risen for workers in the 20-50 age group (the group most likely to have children and/or other dependents).
Hours worked overall rose steeply in the 1990s, a product of the defeat of the working class at the hands of the fourth Labour government (1984-1990) and then in the first term of the fourth National government (1990-1993), a defeat eventually codified in the Employment Contracts Act of 1991 and that year’s ‘Mother of all Budgets’.
Hours and the ‘rock star’ economy
Around the middle of the first decade of the 2000s, official hours worked fell somewhat but then, starting in 2010, they began to rise again.
This coincides with the impact of the global financial crisis and the fact that hours worked have continued to rise indicates the shallowness of the notion promoted by Key that NZ has a ‘rock star’ economy, unless the rock star he is referring to is some clapped-out, drug-besotten, senile old rocker, kept together only by continuous injections of publicly-funded booster drugs.
Why longer hours?
Why people in this country work relatively long hours can be understood for two key, inter-related reasons. One is pay. Many of us just can’t survive on a 40-hour week.
As the graph on the right shows, the rate of increase in median hourly earnings slowed in 2007 and, even more, in 2008 – the last two years of the last Labour-led government. Although NZ escaped the worst of the worldwide recession connected with the GFC (global financial crisis) that began to bite in 2007-2008, the rate of increases in hourly pay continued to decline, after a brief lift in the first year of the current National-led government.
The other, and related, factor is that since the ECA employers here have relied on increasing productivity not by substantial increases in PME (plant, machinery and technology) and R&D (research and development) investments, but by making workers work longer, harder, faster. In other words, they compete with capitalists in other countries by increasing output and cutting prices by simply making workers produce more goods through working longer hours (see link to productivity article underneath this article).
This form of increasing productivity also explains why the labour force scarcely expanded between the 2001 and 2013 censuses.
At the same time, working class passivity, partly the result of defeats and partly the result of the decay of old industrial sectors which set examples for struggle, mean that the employers have simply been emboldened to demand more and more from workers. They are getting away with making workers work long hours for relatively less and with making more and more work tenuous. Labour and National, as the political reflections of the interests of the NZ capitalist class, have succeeded in lowering workers’ horizons and getting workers to internalise this, in the form of lowered expectations.
As long as workers continue to accept this state of affairs things won’t get better for us. Cap in hand gets kick in teeth, as we have persistently pointed out on this blog.
Until, or unless, workers begin some serious resistance – workplace fightbacks, a total break with Labour and the establishment of a fighting political-industrial movement of, for and by workers, we’re stuck with the crappy state of affairs that exists at present. Under capitalism, the way things are now are as good as it gets.
Low pay, longer hours and less social mobility: welcome to 21st New Zealand capitalism
Whatever happened to workers’ resistance?
Herbert Marcuse and the passivity of the NZ working class
The productivity trap: heads they win, tails we lose
Unions and the fight against redundancies
Christchurch teachers: cap in hand gets kick in guts
Which way forward for workers and unions?
“Appeasement doesn’t work: the bosses and their lackeys in government always want more”: speech by RMT organiser
Building a class-struggle trade union: interview with Tommy McKearney
Income and wealth inequality unchanged by last Labour government
The Truth about Labour: a bosses’ party
Key’s ‘vision’: managing the malaise of NZ capitalism