Britons are lazy? Don’t let Boris get away with that

It's not 'sloth' that ruined this country's economy, whatever Boris Johnson may say, but it is another of the Seven Deadly Sins. So let’s aim fire at greed

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Mess your hair up. Garble your sentences. Make witty one-liners about being reincarnated as an olive. Turns out that if you do all of these things, you can pretty much get away with anything. An uber-privileged Mayor of London accuses British workers of “sloth” –basically a poncy, Biblical way of calling them lazy bastards. It’s not the 18th century; it’s not the 19th century. This is now.

Boris Johnson’s calculated insult to millions of workers was a throwaway remark in the Tories’ renewed civil war over the EU. If we upped and left, he argues, we would have to stop scapegoating Brussels and deal with our own deep-seated problems: including a rather puzzling “culture of easy gratification”, as well as scapegoating British workers instead. You have to wonder at our lack of self-respect: where is the outrage of overworked, underpaid workers at being smeared by a millionaire who is paid £250,000 a year for cobbling a newspaper column together?

It’s risible nonsense, by the way. Those not languishing in the misery of unemployment work very hard indeed. According to a study by Professor Francis Green, full-time male workers slog for longer hours than anywhere else in Europe. The average Briton puts in 42.7 hours a week: in the EU, only the Austrians and the Greeks are stuck in their workplaces for longer. And then there’s the three million workers spending more than 48 hours of their precious waking hours busting a gut at work. Sloth indeed.

Britain is actually quite unlike other developed countries which have made some limited progress in unchaining workers from their desks. As the OECD points out, we’re the only industrialised country where working hours are now longer than they were in the 1980s. Both better-off and poorer workers have been stuck in offices, factories and call centres for three hours more a week – while the average low-paid worker in other developed countries is working three hours fewer.

What makes Johnson’s ignorance all the more insulting is that huge numbers of us have to work overtime without being paid a penny for it. TUC figures reveal that, each week, one in five workers regularly puts in seven hours of unpaid overtime. Workers ratchet up nearly two billion hours of unpaid work each year: a scandalous reminder of just how exploited working people are in this country. For bosses, this unpaid labour is a goldmine: it’s worth more than £28bn a year.

The amount of time we can spend seeking “easy gratification” is limited still further by our short holidays. We have the right to 28 paid days leave a year: the Swedes – who have a far better functioning economy than we do – get another 11 days on top of that.

Britain’s economy is in a mess and – Johnson is right – it’s not the bureaucrats in Brussels who bear responsibility. It’s his ideological soulmates in No 10 and No 11 who have done everything they can to suck out demand, building an economy increasingly based on low wages and low productivity.

Rather than talking about “sloth”, let’s aim fire at another of the Seven Deadly Sins: greed. Because while the pay packets of the average hard-pressed worker continue to slide – in real terms, down by 8.5 per cent since 2009 – it remains boom time for those at the top. It would be easy for me to savage the Tories alone for this scandal, but it would also be dishonest. The great slide in wages began four years before Lehman Brothers came crashing down, and six years before this catastrophic Government unleashed self-defeating austerity. At the time, companies were posting record profits: all that wealth being created by their over-worked staff was flowing into their bank accounts.

That’s because – even after 13 years of a Labour government – little was done to shift power back away from bosses to working people. Workers remain shackled by some of the most stringent anti-union laws in the Western world, leaving them unable to stand their ground and demand a bigger share of the wealth.

Winning civil rights for workers in the workplace means building a society in which we work less. Working this hard is bad for us. It separates us from our families, prevents us from nurturing our children, and stops us pursuing our leisure interests. “Nobody on their deathbed has ever said, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office,’” said Rabbi Harold Kushner. It is bad for our health: it increases the risk of a whole range of problems, such as stress, depression, diabetes and heart disease. If it’s manual labour, it’s bad for your body in other ways, too.

We should not be conjuring up new ideas to squeeze even more labour from Britain’s chronically overworked workers. No: we should be aiming for shorter working days and weeks; more holidays; clamping down on unpaid overtime. That’s not encouraging “sloth”: it’s about building a happier society with more well-rounded people. Working us even harder would be great for Britain’s booming wealthy, but the rest of us wouldn’t benefit from the proceeds of our exploitation.

Johnson mastered the schtick of “politician who wants to hand a shedload more wealth and power to the ruling elite while posturing as anti-establishment” before Nigel Farage did. But don’t forget. He’s a class warrior with floppy hair and a nice one-liner. Enough of leaving his guff unchallenged.

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