NEWS

What happened to the 40-hour workweek?

We mean to make things over, / We are tired of toil for naught / With but bare enough to live upon / And ne’er an hour for thought. / We want to feel the sunshine / And we want to smell the fl’wers / We are sure that God has willed it / And we mean to have eight hours; / We’re summoning our forces / From the shipyard, shop and mill… The «Eight Hour Day Song» was first sung at the protest marking International Worker’s Day, later renamed Labor Day, in Chicago on May 1, 1886. But, today, 119 years later, who can really remember what an eight-hour workday is like? Who remembers that Labor Day was all about ensuring an eight-hour day? Who remembers the slogan «eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, eight hours for what we will»? Today, after becoming a legally justified appeal, the eight-hour day has mutated into nine hours of work, two hours of commuting, four hours of television, three hours of housework and chores, and the remainder of the day for sleep. Today, 86 years after the International Labor Organization General Conference convened in Washington in October 1919 and signed a convention adopting the eight-hour day, things just seem to be getting worse. This deterioration is due not only to the fact that actual hours spent at work, even in Europe, have not effectively fallen below 40 a week, but also to mounting pressure on an international scale to work longer and harder hours. What has happened to the technology-based utopias imagined in the 1950s and ’60s, according to which, in 1985, the working week was supposed to be reduced to 22 hours and in 2000 to 14? What went wrong? Was it technology or society that failed to make scientific breakthroughs benefit the working majority? Who reaps the fruit of increased productivity from the labor force? Why are some people breaking under the pressure of work while others crumble under the burden of unemployment? What is certain is that the prevailing trend among governments and employers worldwide is to lengthen the workweek, either by increasing standard working hours or by making hours flexible. Flexible hours makes the work look like an eight-hour day on paper, but employees will end up working 10 or even 12 hours a day if the workload is heavy. Furthermore, there is mounting pressure by governments and other authorities to amend the European Work Time Directive so that work-hours can be determined by individual employers.