So New Zealanders work longer hours than most comparable countries. Is that a problem or simply a mark of respect for individual choice? Parliamentarians, scientists and architects, for instance, may work long hours because they want to. Many find their occupations so absorbing that day turns to night in the blink of an eye. They are interested, stimulated, and, of course, well paid. Unlike the low paid cleaners who arrive when the day is done and long for night to turn into day, and then look for the clock to put an end to their part-time day job. Stimulation? Choice? Not for them.
In the Sunday Star Times last month Labour MP Darien Fenton talked about legislating for shorter working days. Turning New Zealanders back to the time when Labour Day was honoured. Yet back in 1967 I knew a self-employed Taffy plasterer who, after a week on a bender, turned out for work on Good Friday. “No one’s going to tell me when to work,” he said. Forty years later National’s Kate Wilkinson told the Star Times : “I work 80 hours a week and nobody is going to tell me I can’t do that.” Despite the fact that no one has suggested curbing the working hours of the self-employed or Members of Parliament, the debate is timely.
Why are New Zealand workers, who once believed in Samuel Parnell’s eight hour day, now working longer hours? The legacy of Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson? Despite faint stirrings of life in some unions, overtime rates are now confined to the memories of older workers. Employers don’t have to think twice about having staff work on weekends. Indeed, many younger workers in service industries have never known the Kiwi weekend. Consumers - that is, you and I - demand to be served coffee and a Danish from cafes that were once closed on Saturdays as well as Sundays. Most of these cafes are understaffed and unsustainable. They are for the most part temporary, changing hands or going out of business at a rapid rate. The irony is that the underpaid and overworked people who serve us coffee in these places are catering to our idea of leisure.
David Lowe from the Employers Association is dead against taking the message of Labour Day too seriously. Why do we need a law when “people can just talk to their bosses?” he was quoted in the Star Times - a naive statement which ignores the pressures on employees in small companies. Stressed-out, and often intimidating bosses are not amenable to sensible negotiations with young employees. And it can be just as difficult when the relationship between boss and worker is friendly, to a point that inhibits honest communication on matters of working conditions.
Add consumerism to the mix. How did we ever manage to get our shopping done on Friday nights? Did cafes and shops make a profit before the seven-day week? When the pubs closed at six pm, did they make a profit? Who made up the picnics before we turned to takeouts? Why do so many people build such big houses these days? Do they really need instant gardens? How did we manage as one-car families? No car families? When did we start throwing out good clothing and last year’s model machines? And those thousands of mothers who work full-time; what goes on in their minds as they dash out shopping at lunch time? With such an abundance, why do so many people feel so stressed? Was it really better in the sixties or is that me being nostalgic?
Depends on what you value, I suppose. Listener columnist Joanne Black finds it irritating that commercials are not allowed to be shown on television on Sunday mornings. She thinks we should all be allowed to make a buck any time any place. Joanne Black and I have different political philosophies. But I concede - hers is in the ascendancy.