Let’s hear it for a 35 hour week

Because workers in Britain have fewer rights than practically every other country in Western Europe, it’s difficult to know where to begin when suggesting what to tackle first. The lack of real trade union rights, leaving us in violation of our obligations as signatories of the International Labour Convention? The lack of rights for agency workers, which also threatens the job security, wages and conditions of everyone else? The scandal of wages stagnating or even declining for British workers even before the recession hit, while productivity rose and bosses enjoyed booming pay-packets?

All of these are damning indictments of the lack of rights British workers have in this country. It should also cause us to reflect on the many failures and disappointments of 13 years of New Labour rule. But I want to float a policy idea that I think could be popular and – above all – make a difference to workers’ lives.

British workers toil in shops, factories, call centres and offices for some of the longest hours in Europe. By 2007, full-time workers were putting in an average of 41.4 hours every week, up from 40.7 hours a year earlier. In the EU, only Romanian and Bulgarian workers put in longer hours.

New Labour negotiated an opt-out from the European Working Time Directive that caps the working week at 48 hours. In theory, workers can only work longer than this if they agree to. But, according to a survey by the TUC, one in three workers didn’t even know the option existed, and another two in three who regularly worked more than 48 hours were never given a choice. That leaves one in five Britons regularly working longer than the directive’s 48 hours.

If you take overtime into account, the picture of exploitation builds still more steadily. In 2009, over five million workers did more than seven hours of unpaid overtime on average each week – and the trend is up. Having so many people working for free is worth a huge amount to bosses. According to the TUC, business made a stunning £27.4 billion out of it – that’s £5,402 per worker.

That’s why I think Labour should commit to a 35-hour-week. It would help restore a work-life balance in Britain, giving people more time to spend with their families and their friends. It would almost certainly lead to a happier, less stressed out workforce.

I can hear the naysayers – “the French tried it, and it didn’t work”. But despite the current right-wing government watering it down, most companies have, in practice, stuck to it. “The revision was a purely ideological effort to undo a landmark Socialist law, and ignored the fact most companies and workers don’t want to change the 35-hour arrangement,” as Eric Heyer, an economist at Paris’ French Economic Observatory, put it.

Of course, it would need to be accompanied with guarantees that no worker would suffer a cut in their pay. It should also be introduced alongside a genuine living wage for all workers.

But I think it would be a real vote-winner. And, before you dismiss it as a fringe loony lefty idea, even the Tories under Cameron looked into introducing it when they were in Opposition.

Let’s start getting bold about workers’ rights. The time is ripe for a 35-hour-week.

This blog first appeared at Labour List.