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Letter from Elsewhere: The W Word – Work

Letter from Elsewhere with Anne Else

The W Word – Work

It’s official: Kiwi couples are working longer hours. Who knew? Seriously, I’m very pleased a new survey* has pinned down precisely how long a long working week now is, and how widespread. Just one small thing – the words “for pay” are missing.

So when we’re told that couples aged 25-59 are working, on average, between 68 and 74 hours a week, it really means they’re working more like 80 or 90 hours – especially if they’ve got kids at home, or elderly parents. No matter how hard the marketeers try to fool us, stuff like shopping, cooking, cleaning and driving is actually work – someone has to do it. If everyone cooking dinner tonight (please note how gender-inclusive I’m being here, especially as my husband is at this moment putting on a Sunday roast, along with his signature yams in orange juice) went next door and cooked dinner there for pay, there’d be a sudden massive leap in GDP.

While I’m all in favour of the push for “work-life balance”, I have serious problems with the wording. It makes life sound like the opposite of work, a glorious advertiser’s dream of endless leisure, a more energetic version of those ads for the “older age group” who no longer “work”, they just have “life” instead – which usually seems to involve golf, boats, bowls, or perfectly behaved grandchildren. The older people I know (I’ll soon have to write “we older people”) spend most of their time doing things for even older people, keeping community organisations going, and stepping in to rescue their families from various crises.

For the younger ones – certainly most of the women, and a growing number of men - it’s either almost all about paid work, or about “balancing” paid and unpaid work, with a bit of time for yourself left over if you’re lucky. But somehow we still can’t get our heads around this. In fact, we’re getting worse - unpaid work is less visible and valued than ever.

We throw up our hands in horror at the thought of all those lazy sole parents sitting around on the DPB when they should be out there juggling paid and unpaid work like most other mothers. This conveniently ignores what we’ve known for years, but the new survey starkly confirms: ordinary couples are now working an average 73 hours of paid work a week to support a family – and even then, some of them are struggling.

So we’re demanding that one woman be the sole caregiver plus at least one and a half full-time workers (with ample allowance for the fact that two adults can’t live, or work, quite as cheaply as one). For all but the highest earners (who aren’t on the DPB anyway), this does not add up.

There’s been a lot of glib chat about family-friendly workplaces and policies. But when the Department of Labour** asked people recently what they saw as the most important issues for “work-life balance”, they came up with a list so familiar that anyone who’s taken any notice of all this over the last ten years could recite it in their sleep.

On top, as usual, is lack of access to childcare – not just any old childcare, but high quality, affordable childcare. Second is low hourly wages, meaning too many people have to put in long hours of paid work to cover the basics.

Next is the undervaluing of caring and voluntary work. This isn’t just a boring old catchphrase, it has profound and damaging consequences. Finally, more and more jobs involve long hours of what is often physically or mentally intensive work, without sufficient recovery time. Judging by a raft of union surveys, this is rapidly becoming standard practice, and there’s remotely nothing family- or just plain human-friendly about it.

Amazingly, New Zealand has no law requiring workers to have a break during the working day. So employers can, for example, break up a 40-minute rest break into five-minute instalments – or not allow any breaks at all. Five-hour shifts with no break are common. A café owner employing my 19-year-old niece told her it was “not our policy” to let staff have a meal break in their seven-hour day.

Some people – Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh, for example – obviously do choose to work very long hours, and get applauded (and in this case, richly rewarded) for it. But the key word here is choose. If they want to change their lives, they can. It’s not quite the same as the nurses doing three double shifts in a row and getting a chocolate fish each from their grateful employer (I’m not kidding – this did happen).

As the CTU is now pointing out,# enabling people to get their lives into better balance, so that they can all, “without discrimination, fully take part in paid employment and family, social and cultural life”, is not rocket science. In ten years’ time, I hope I’m not writing about another round of surveys telling us that (a) paid work hours have gone up yet again, and (b) there still isn’t enough quality, affordable childcare. On second thoughts, if (a) is true, (b) will no longer apply, because the birthrate will be close to zero.

* By Dr Paul Callister, based on 15 years of Census data, to be released by the Department of Labour this week.

** Department of Labour, Achieving balanced lives and employment – what New Zealanders are saying about work-life balance, July 2004.

# NZCTU, It’s about time: a union guide to wok-life balance, November 2004.

**********

- Anne Else is a Wellington writer and social commentator. Her occasional column will typically appear on a Monday. You can subscribe to receive Letter From Elsewhere by email when it appears via the Free My Scoop News-By-Email Service

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