Work, Europe and Utopia – part nine by Henri Brugmans


9. Reduction in working hours

One of the main demands of the working class movement in the years before the 1914-1918 War was that “the eight hour day”. A sort of “mystique” even grew up around this issue: “eight hours of work, eight hours of sleep, eight hours to live as a free man”. The idea of the First of May, which started in America, had as its aim to base an international spectacle upon this issue. In spite of strong resistance from employers, who often produced alarming statistics, the goal was achieved almost everywhere, during the ’20s. Under the influence of Albert Thomas, the Inernational Labour Office concentrated a good deal of its time on this particularly popular reform.

During the recession of the ’30s an even more radical diminution of working hours was proposed as a means of combatting unemployment. It is true it was relatively less popular in Europe, but in America the architects of the New Deal held out great hopes for it. The line of argument moreover was simple: to divide what work was available between a larger number of workers. Moreover it was thought that this reform would not be too costly, because by proceeding in this way substantial savings could be made in the payment of unemployment benefits. However, the results did not come up to these expectations.

The present “crisis” has rekindled this debate. We shall make a few general observations.

The first argument is already familiar to the reader, having already been stated elsewhere in this paper, that the scope of national action is particularly limited here. In any country where trade union pressure led to the introduction by legislation of the 36 hour week, for example, they would necessarily find costs of production increasing and consequently export opportunities diminishing. It is thus necessary to think at least in continental, and, preferably , in global terms. At least the European Economic Community offers a framework of progress, which the United Nations is far from doing. On top of which, one can hope that this is an area where Europeans will play a progressive social role. It is moreover conceivable that to safeguard such progress, it will one day be necessary to instigate (bring about or initiate) anti-dumping measures, a practice which is, on the whole, always deplorable, even thought necessary in certain limited circumstances, Again, this is a two-edged sword which must be used sparingly, since protectionism of any sort always provokes retaliation. Whatever the circumstances, however, an exclusively national demand in this area becomes worthless. The employers will always be right in claiming that foreign competition prevents them from taking the initiative.

Next, it would be very dangerous to base this demand upon an idelogy opposed to work, ne which is redesigned from the very beginning to a fatalistic (the belief that all events are predetermined and therefore inevitable) acceptance of servitude: earning your daily bread is always, inevitably, “hard labour”, while leisure alone gives man a possibility of realizing his potential. Certainly, Jean Fourastie could speak of a human existence in which professional work was limited to “40.000 hours” according to his calculation. But this number of hours, though reduced, remains so considerable that the time should not be filled with monotony and drudgery (dull work). Besides, the quality of leisure time is conditioned to a large extend by the impact of the job. This requires less physical effort than it once did, but it makes other demands on the nervous system, the impact of which cannot be ignored.

The direction, briefly, in which it seems we should proceed in this respect is as follows. The essence of what we are aiming at is not to be found in a systmatic dimunition (reducing the sice, extend or importance of something) of the quantity of work, but rather in a humanisation of our technology. In other words, the time is ripe for a “controlled technology”, the principal criterion of which would be the elimination of unhealty industrial processes – that is to say, those prejudicial to the physical and mental well being of the work force – in favour of methods at the same time economic in their consumption of raw materials and showing respect towards the person. Possibly, this is too much to ask at the one time, but it is the price Europe must pay if it wishes to give the world a model of a humanistic economy stated briefly, technological innovation is neither an imperative of progress to be passively accepted, nro a neutral product of science.

The person who most effectively opened up this groudn was Schumacher, first in his best-known work SMALL IS BEAUTIFUL, then, perhaps even more succesfully, in GOOD WORK. According to him, no one wishes to work more than is necessary, given the present state of technological development. However, nor does anyone want to submit to the drudgery of a type of industrial work devoid of all personal satisfaction, because of deafening noise, permanent noxious smells, monotony which – for certain types of people anyway – leads to a gradual deadening of the finest human faculties. Yet only occasionally have technologists taken account of the living conditions of those for whom they design their machines. A code of conduct needs to be outlined in this respect.

Lastly, if the reduction of working hours is perhps less important than the humanisation of working conditions, it may nevertheless have a certain importance in the fight against unemployment. On condition, however, that wages are sufficiently fair that so-called “moonlighting”is no longer an economic necessity and becomes, in consequence, a social evil to fight against. there again, European legislation is a high priority. But, of course, it will not be sufficient. What we also need to ensure is that the control of the new technology, spoken of above, involves equally opting for labour rather than capital intensive activities. That is already an imperative for Third World countries, where labour is plentiful and cheap. It is also so for the traditional industrial nations. In the present situaiton, in which profit is the main and often only criterion, it is too tempting to keep on replacing human labour with that of machines, to such an extent that, finally, society finds itself burdened with a “reserve army” of labour, that is both numerous and permanent. Hence we are obiged to draw up a list of three imperatives: the needs to be met, the labour forces available, and the machines able to offer on the market at the one time an economically attractive product, an acceptable type of work, and reasonable levels of capital investment. A directed technology must find a balance between these three factors.

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