Friday, 5 August 2016

Time Gentlemen, Please

Have you ever had a particularly long and stressful week at work and wished you'd had more spare time to learn Ukulele strum techniques and conjugate German verbs? This kind of thing used to happen to me all the time when I lived in the UK. It's probably happened to you as well, except for the Ukulele playing and German verb part. If you are also a fan of Ukulele strum techniques and German verb conjugations then we should probably meet up in the real world. Maybe we'd have too much in common, though, and actually have nothing to say to each other. Life is like that sometimes.

This post is going to be about the EU Working Time Directive. Please come back! Really, please come back because this is not as dull as it sounds. I can't pretend it is riveting either but there is lots to think about for when the UK finally leaves the EU. If you don't want to leave the EU then you might get to choose between the EU and the UK in a second Scottish Independence referendum. I really hope I can convince you that being an EU citizen is basically awesome and that you don't want to lose the protections of the Working Time Directive.   The alternative is too awful to contemplate.

The difference in attitudes to work between Continental Europe and the UK is really quite startling. Guess which is the most workaholic? Correctamundo, UK "wins" again. There is a German word "Feierabend", which means something like "celebrated evening". Feierabend is much more than the plain old evening that we have in the UK - this is something to celebrate and cherish. It's not even a special evening or anything like that: every single evening is Feierabend. I'm enjoying my Feierabend as I write this. Feierabend is really part of the culture in Germany, Austria and the German-speaking part of Switzerland. The only thing you need to know about Feierabend is that it is most definitely not a time for working. Work stops at a certain time and then an evening of activity and family time can begin. Just look at this musical German family getting all teary-eyed about it.

Wow, if you don't have something in your eye after that beautiful song you must be a cold fish. I really thought the old boy was going to keel over and die at one point.  What a performance.  Really pulled off all that German Sehnsucht with true aplomb.

Could us Brits have Feierabend too? I wish we could. I'd like Feierabend to become as much a part of the English language as Schadenfreude or Lager. I suspect, though, that leaving the EU will kill all chances of this becoming a reality. Once that happens we will no longer be protected by the Working Time Directive. 

The Working Time Directive is no more than EU legislation that guarantees workers' rights. It mainly deals with minimum holiday entitlement and working hours.  Take a quick squizz here and here.  Not bad, huh?  A minimum 11 hours rest every 24 hours, 20 days holiday guaranteed per year, a minimum of 1 day off each week.  If you have ever considered a career in North America you will know that the rest of the world does not enjoy this kind of protection.  In fact, if you've ever met a US citizen on their grand tour of Europe you might understand why they whizz around at breakneck speed without pausing for breath - you would too if you get less than 10 days off per year.  I work for a US firm and employees in the US get 0 days annual entitlement.  That wasn't a typo.  I really meant 0 days.  I work for a respected Silicon Valley business that employs highly skilled workers at graduate and PhD level.  It even wins awards for the way they treat employees, yet every time colleagues in the US want time off they have to ask their boss for permission.  I often hear complaints that the company doesn't schedule for time off so they end up having to catch up with extra hours when they get back from holiday.  This is all perfectly legal because there is no entitlement to holidays or free time or weekends in the "land of the free".  I used to work for another US company that named and shamed employees in the US office who didn't come in at weekends or left at a time deemed too early, perhaps to look after their kids or just collapse in a heap on the floor.  This is the kind of treatment that is meted out to highly qualified workers in the US.  An ex-colleague who worked at Electronic Arts told me that the official policy there was that nobody should work more than 21 days straight because only at that point do they become unproductive.  They are probably the lucky ones. I don't even want to think what kind of working culture you have to endure if you work as a cleaner in Cleveland or in textiles in Texas.

You might argue that the UK led the way with workers' rights.  I would argue that too.  Going right back to the Labour movement of the early 20th century and forward to the years of the post-war consensus, the UK had relatively progressive attitudes.  The key point in all of this, though, is that those freedoms were underpinned by the power of collective labour.  Those days are gone.  After all, who looks to the Labour Party as a party for the workers these days?  You only have to compare Tony Benn with Hilary Benn to see how much has changed in a single generation.  As it stands, the single most powerful institution that protects workers' rights in the UK is the European Union.  The Working Time Directive is a key part of that.

The post-war consensus ended suddenly with the Thatcher government and then had its once-beautiful face stamped on by every single government ever since.  Why would a UK government try to protect the rights of workers when it can protect the rights of businesses instead?  Yes, the Labour Party, I mean you as well.  In fact, Labour Party, I specifically mean you.  It was the last Labour Government that campaigned against the Working Time Directive and heroically secured an opt-out for the UK.  Here is Pat McFadden MP back in 2009 when he was Labour Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs: "We refused to be pushed into a bad deal for Britain. We have said consistently that we will not give up the opt-out and we have delivered on that pledge".  I don't see any "bad deal" in the Working Time Directive.  Didn't we want to build an economy more like Germany around that time?  Well, Germany has some of the best protections for workers in the whole of Europe. Being more like Germany means evenings in the beer garden and roller-skating on Sundays and trips to the mountains.  Being more like Germany means having more spare time to engage in evening and weekend activities.  It does not mean working all hours, having no holidays, not seeing your kids, and not having enough time to practice ukulele strum techniques.   Ok, you have to endure all that terrible Schlager music but Germany is really a pretty good place to work.  I even lived there for 2 years and developed a tolerance for Schlager. 

Pat McFadden (left) hacking away joyously at all that Euro red tape. Just look at his happy face.
 Maybe you want to learn more about this opt-out before dismissing it, as I just did with an uncharacteristic flash of anger.  The good news is that the opt-out is entirely voluntary.  You can opt in and then opt out and then back in again as you see fit.  Do you see that working in practice?  It probably has limited success in some industries, less so in mine.  Employers are tricky buggers with a legal duty to shareholders to optimise share price. If they can find a way round it, they will.  How they might do that?  Well, almost nobody in my industry gets sacked these days.  What happens instead is that employers make conditions unbearable for you, perhaps through micro-management or continually picking away at your performance. This is all perfectly legal.  They do this until you accept the incentives on offer for you to leave.  Eventually you agree to leave with a couple of months pay and a wholly positive reference so that you may begin again elsewhere. For my own amusement I googled "fired by google" and came up with exactly that kind of story

When I worked for that US employer who named and shamed, we were issued with opt-out forms in the UK office. Did I sign it?  Yes, to my eternal shame I did.  I think you know the reasons why.  The "voluntary" part of the opt-out is nothing of the sort.  If I signal to my employer that I no longer intend to work unlimited hours they might start playing all sorts of games with me.  This was, after all, not an employer famed for worrying about the well-being of their staff.  In fact, their loose attitude to staff well-being is probably one of the things that enabled the shareholders to make billions and billions of dollars between them.  Why would they change when they don't have to?  And the opt-out means they certainly don't have to.  Thank you Pat McFadden MP for giving me the "freedom" to work repeatedly late into the night for a US employer so that huge profits could be shared on the Nasdaq exchange.  I'm sure that is exactly what Kier Hardie had in mind.

Here's Pat chuckling to himself after I told him about my hellish day at work.
I got a bit angry again, there. Time to calm down and wrap this up.  One of the reasons I left the UK was to get a bit more of that Feierabend Kultur.  I was over-worked and not getting enough spare time to enjoy life.  I really can't complain now - I even have enough time to write this light-hearted blog for an exclusive a very limited readership.  Having said that I don't want to go back to the UK work culture, especially one where the protections of the Working Time Directive are pointlessly squandered by the opt-out.  The thought of losing even those limited protections is terrifying and depressing all at once.  Remember, this is exactly what David Davis means when he says he is going to cut all that EU red tape.

Over and out,


PS You can find more about WTD opt-outs here.  Malta, Cyprus and the UK are the only EU nations not to place any upper bound on weekly work.  The remaining opt-outs are rather technical in nature and, to my mind,  don't infringe the spirit of the Directive.  The German limited opt-out, for example, appears to place extra restrictions on working hours by forcing employers to give time back when the 8 hr day is repeatedly exceeded (by a maximum of 2 hrs). Why does the UK think it is so special?

PS What is all this mysterious EU red tape, where did id come from and where will it go?  I am going to try and find out. Stay tuned.


  1. Ich will nicht, lange zu arbeiten;
    Sie wollen nicht, lange zu arbeiten;
    Er will nicht lange Haus zu arbeiten;
    Wir wollen nicht, lange zu arbeiten.

    Nope, I'm bored already. Where's that Uke?

    The red tape they talk so much about? Yes, I look forward to your investigation. I suspect it will show that most of it is about protection of workers. Not something the UK will be so bothered about post Thatcher.

    1. German verb conjugation is not as fun as learning the uke. I'll give you that.

      I suspect a lot of red tape is about consumer protection, such as fruit classification, and workers' rights. The consumer protection red tape will be hard to drop because selling in the EU would be impossible without it. Switzerland adopted a lot of this type of legislation to avoid having two production lines: one that meets Swiss standards and a second for the EU. The workers' rights, of course, are now free to be dismantled. If only we had an effective political party that championed the rights of workers. I'm sure we used to have one but it was so long ago. I think my Dad mentioned it once or twice.


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