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Praise workers who strive for balance too

By Russell Marks - posted Thursday, 10 January 2013

Amanda Vanstone finds much to admire in "normal Australians" (The Age, 7 January 2013), and urges her readers to look to them, and not our parliamentarians, for inspiration.

A worthy sentiment, perhaps. But it comes after she complains that normal Australians seem to have developed a reputation as "whingers", at least in their attitudes toward parliamentarians.

And she has a go at those normal Australians who "are happy to sink the boot into parliamentarians" despite never having tried to "excel in their own work". As such, she implores us to work longer and harder, to make 2013 a great year.


But Ms Vanstone's urgings just don't accord with the facts.

According to official OECD statistics, Australians have among the strongest work ethics of all the developed economies. In 2011, each worker worked an average of 1,693 hours (or 32.5 hours per week), which is more than workers in Britain, Sweden, Ireland, France, Norway, Germany and the Netherlands.

And in 2009, it emerged that Australian workers had accrued a total of 123 million days of unclaimed leave. Australians have become so accustomed to working hard, even forgoing annual leave in the process, that employer groups backed a campaign – "No Leave No Life" – which encouraged their employees to take some time off work.

The good old days of the Great Australian Sickie are well behind us. A recent report by Direct Health Solutions, an absence management firm, suggests that the vast majority of sick leave is genuine. This is despite the false belief, held by 83 per cent of organisations, that faked "sickies" are a significant cause of absenteeism.

Instead of whingeing about politicians, Ms Vanstone wants us to get out there and work harder than our competitors. But we already are. Even when we leave work, many of us are tapping away on our tablets and our smart phones, responding to work emails well into the night. All these hours are unpaid. In fact, Australians already donate 4 whole weeks of unpaid overtime, or $72 billion, to their employers every year – and this is just those hours capable of being measured.

Yet Australian workers are constantly under siege from employer groups who want to force us to work longer hours for less pay. Just before Christmas, Fair Work Australia heard from employers in the retail, hospitality and fast food industries who wanted to scrap penalty rates for working on public holidays. It's difficult to see how this kind of argument can be justified, given that McDonald's Australian arm alone posted $184 million in profit in 2011.


Still, Ms Vanstone wants us to start work half an hour earlier and finish half an hour later each day, which would effectively keep us at work an additional 52 days every year. This would put us up there on the top of the OECD "hard worker" tables with Russia, Chile, Korea and Mexico, countries not known for their enlightened workplace relations policies or their commitment to work-life balance.

Australians have a long history of demanding a fair balance between the time we devote to work, and time we can spend with friends, family and partners or on our own. The "Eight Hour Day" campaign was a major success for the early labour movement in the nineteenth century, with its modest but fair aim of preventing employers in industries like mining and masonry from forcing workers to labour beyond 5pm.

But with her demands for ever-longer working hours, Ms Vanstone draws from an alternative tradition. During the 1830s and 1840s in New South Wales, workers who left their places of employment without permission were hunted down under the Bushrangers Act of 1830 and often sentenced to terms of imprisonment, or worse. This is the tradition which sees workers are purely a resource for exploitation by employers in their quest for ever-greater profits.

This is the tradition to which the Orwellian-titled "WorkChoices" policy of the Howard Coalition government, of which Ms Vanstone was a prominent Minister, belonged. Despite record profit levels across the economy in the early 2000s, WorkChoices purported to increase corporate profits even further by shifting the balance of power in Australian workplaces away from individual workers and toward employers, by forcing individuals to sign contracts directly with their employers (and thus lose the benefits of collectively-negotiated employment conditions) and by enabling bosses to sack workers even in situations deemed unfair to the employee.

What kind of society would this lead to? Business and employer groups often claim that Australia must further deregulate its workplace relations or risk losing out to Asia with its low wages and poor conditions. But this is just the sort of race to the bottom we can and should avoid. Australia is one of the most pleasant places on the planet to live precisely because it places fair restrictions on the demands employers can legitimately make of employees.

Of course we should praise, as Ms Vanstone does, the policemen and volunteer firefighters and volunteers and hairdressers and small businesspeople. But we should also praise and celebrate the worker who works hard until 5 o'clock and then shuts down the computer, switches off the light and goes home, to play sport, get fit, spend time with the family, pursue a hobby or a writing career, and generally try to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

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About the Author

Russell Marks is a PhD candidate at La Trobe University. His thesis topic is Nationalism, Patriotism and the Australian Left: An Intellectual History.

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