Upon reading this headline, one would be forgiven for thinking that a publication that is often referred to as a ‘rag’, cares deeply about ordinary Brits’ income and so is the Conservative Party’s Europhobic (current) majority. In reality though, they like to hide behind the veil of nationalism so as to conceal its market fundamentalism. This is why they love to hate the EU’s Working Time Directive. That directive is part of an enduring effort made by a previous coalition of national and EU-level political actors to use the collective force of the European Union to ‘humanise’ capitalism as we – citizens of the EU – face it in our daily lives.
Originally enacted in 1993, it was extended to a larger number of workers in 2000 and was subsequently codified in 2003. It contains basic provisions such as daily and weekly limits to the number of hours that workers can be required to work, a legal right to four weeks of paid annual holidays, legal rights to regular health checks for those who work during the night (an activity that is directly associated with ill health), rest breaks, etc. Two key points are often missed when that directive is discussed in Britain. First, it – just like several other pieces of EU legislation – sets minimum standards (i.e. a ‘floor’ below which member states are not allowed to go) but allows EU member states that want to enact higher levels of protection to do so. Second, the individual opt-out that it contains allows individual workers to work for more than 48 hours per week if they so wish but this is a clause that is often abused in the UK where the culture of long working hours persists.
The original directive was enacted despite vehement opposition from the Conservative British governments of the first half of the 1990s. Later on Tony Blair’s New Labour administrations fought tooth and nail to prevent the abolition of the individual opt-out which it (still) contains. But behind the veneer of ‘British’ opposition, a rather different picture exists – indeed, one about which the Murdoch press does not appear keen to inform its readers but also one that offers awkward reading for supporters of what is misleadingly called ‘Lexit’.
As my own ESRC-funded research has demonstrated, when the New Labour transposed that directive in UK law and then implemented it, they made choices that reflected the then government’s ideological orientation. For example, they transposed the directive into UK law in a way that enabled it to cover many more workers than was legally necessary. They could have done much more along those lines but chose not to. That was the government’s choice. As I have demonstrated elsewhere, the same happened in France. In other words, membership of the EU did not prevent parties that place themselves on the Left of the political spectrum to a) act in ways that was consistent with their ideological orientation and b) in one way or another different from parties of the Right. Moreover, a comparison of these two countries has revealed differences between them too: when in government, New Labour’s stance was less worker-friendly than the stance of the French Socialist Party; the French Right did not question the involvement of public authorities in the regulation of working time, while the British Conservatives still believe that this should be left to the market: a matter for direct negotiations between the individual employers and employees.
Over the week-end, this idea – that the amount of time a worker can be required to work should be left to the marketplace – was, yet again, presented in a way that feeds into a particular narrative not only about the EU but about the economy as well. On that instance, the Sun was simply copying (!) a Frenchman, a descendant of immigrants, no less: Nicolas Sarkozy, the right-winger who won the 2007 French presidential election by promising to French workers to enable them to ‘travailler plus pour gagner plus’. What they subsequently discovered was that his actual policies were not exactly worker-friendly, as demonstrated by the sweeping reform of French labour laws enacted by the Fillon-led governments of the Right. Just like in France, the Sun’s narrative, in addition to the numerous factual mistakes that it contained, reflected the idea that public authorities are by definition fetters, not promoters of material progress; workers ought to compete against each other (come what may) so as to earn more irrespective of the negative consequences that the non- or light-touch regulation of working time can have on their health, family life, etc. Of course, this kind of discourse also helps many employers hide their antiquated practices that foster instead of combatting low productivity. Ironically and revealingly, GDP per hours worked is far higher in France than it is in the UK.