Leading Article: Poor pay as a right

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The Independent Online
DAVID HUNT, the new Secretary of State for Employment, is reportedly 'defiant' and 'vowing' to fight them in the courts of Europe. The Sun assures us 'it is not too late to stop this destruction of our way of life'. John Major promises to 'fight' them, presumably in the gardens if not on the beaches. This national crusade is to preserve, in Mr Major's words, 'British working practices' - the right to work long hours for low pay.

An EC directive, supported by the other 11 member countries, would give employees the right to refuse to work more than 48 hours a week. The directive would also require four weeks' annual paid leave a year, minimum rest periods and detailed rules on night work. There are numerous exemptions: for junior doctors, transport workers, journalists, firefighters, police, foundry workers and research scientists, for example. But these details - many of them negotiated in response to British pressure - are unimportant. The Government's objection is to the principle of regulation. It has opted out of the Social Chapter, only to find the monster returning through the backdoor of health and safety legislation. Ministers insist - and this will be the basis of their challenge through the European Court - that working hours have nothing to do with health and safety. This ignores, for example, the evidence that the Clapham rail disaster was caused by tired maintenance men working excessive overtime. It also ignores common sense. So does much of the debate about working hours. When there are nearly 3 million unemployed, when there are millions of others working part-time who would prefer to work full-time, it sounds, to most people, eminently sensible that overtime should be restricted.

Yet, by its own lights, the Government is probably correct to treat the right to work unlimited hours almost as a matter of national survival. The attempt to turn Britain into the sweatshop of Europe - with a subservient labour force willing to work long, frequently anti-social hours for minimal pay - is the only economic strategy that ministers have pursued consistently for the past 14 years. So poor are the training levels of our managers and workers, so neglected are the nation's public services, so hopeless are our financial institutions at generating industrial investment that ministers have identified 'low wage costs' and 'labour flexibility' as the only salvations for the British economy. Hence the series of seven Employment Acts designed to restrict industrial action. Hence the proposals to abolish wages councils which protect the hours and pay rates of 2.5 million people. And hence the determination to resist EC regulations.

We are not talking here about the right of the company chairman, the City broker or the self-employed barrister to spend long hours at work. No EC Gestapo will demand that captains of industry go home early. We are talking about people who may be forced to accept employers' conditions for lack of alternative employment. Organised British labour is the weakest in Europe, by far. Industrial disputes are no longer concerned with union attempts to improve pay and conditions. They are concerned, almost exclusively, with employers' attempts to cut costs - witness Timex, British Airways, London buses and Tubes, British Rail. As Timex illustrates, British workers, unlike those on the Continent, can be 'locked out' by an aggressive employer even when they want to return to work. Employment legislation makes it all but impossible for a union to organise an industry-wide strike. Average British working hours - now 44, against an EC average of 40 - have moved ahead of the rest of Europe as more employees find that the customary 40- hour week fails to deliver an adequate wage.

Ministers are right to say that EC restrictions would make British industry less competitive than it is now. Similarly, our restrictions on sending children down mines make British coal uncompetitive with Colombian coal. The Government has chosen to compete on price with the developing economies of Asia and Latin America. Our European partners prefer to pursue the alternative: investment in research, development, human skills and technology to produce goods and services that compete on world markets because they are new or because they are of high quality. It is not too late - but almost too late - for Britain to take the same road.