The eight hour day in 2008

In this feature, published by Freedom Press for Mayday 2008, Rob Ray investigates how the campaign for the eight hour day has progressed since the times of the Haymarket Martyrs.

Entire families of Chirala saree makers in India work 12-14 hours a day for their take-home pay of just over £50 a month.

The intricate process of weaving, which is done on hand looms, is dragging in children and the elderly as new processes drive down wages and force longer hours on the workers. Yet India is one of many countries – the vast majority in fact – which has, written into its labour laws, an hourly and weekly limit to working times – nine hours and 48 hours respectively, effectively the eight hour day averaged over a six-day week.

Around the world, largely thanks to the efforts of international labour lobbyists, the picture is broadly similar. Preliminary findings from an investigation carried out by Freedom show barely a dozen countries which have not got the eight hour rule enshrined somewhere in their labour laws as a basic standard. Of those, even fewer fail to place strict limits over the course of a week.

The eight-hour day has been one of the oldest demands of organised labour. The old cry of eight hours to sleep, eight hours for recreation and eight hours of work has been one of the most potent in history. The battle for it which culminated in the historic events in Chicago*, the Haymarket Martyrs and the installing of May 1st as a celebration of labour has passed into legend as one of the working classes’ greatest victories. Yet that victory today seems as patchy as it ever was in the 19th century.

Where the weaving families working in India’s poverty-stricken villages of Andhra Pradesh fall through the cracks is their status as self-employed family concerns – there are no rules covering the hours and renumeration for work done at home. Rather than listening to the concerns of the families being affected – their work in this protected craft is being undercut by cheap, mass-produced prints – the Indian government seems to be headed in the other direction, extending labour norms for all rural garment workers to 12 hours a day, or 60 hours a week.

And a similar picture emerges in a host of industries across the globe. Certain groups are excluded from the eight-hour rule in a variety of countries, for example in Gabon, one of the more extreme examples, where exceptions are made for retail, transport, dock work, hotels and catering, housekeeping, security, medical work, domestic work, ‘liberal occupations’ and the press.
It’s not just unskilled or low-paid work which is affected by such opt-outs. In recent years skilled labour from India has frequently been brought to Bahrain to take on roles such as accountancy – but again, due to opt-outs and threats to jobs, 12-hour days are not uncommon in the industry there.
In many countries, such as Malta or Mozambique, the eight-hour week can be opted-out of by the individual or union, making for a potential loophole vulnerable to abuse by employers.

In the UK, we do not have a specific bar on working more than eight hours in a day, instead having a 48-hour limit over the course of the week – which can be opted out of, the only country in the EU to have refused to make it a definitive maximum. As a result, people have effectively been worked to death, in particular in the field of medicine, with 80 or even 100-hour weeks recorded. Research by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) subsequently places the UK in official terms as the 14th-longest working country.

The US, placed at 7th, has an average workday of 8.4 hours, despite its status as home to the Haymarket Martyrs. In professional industries like investment banking and large law firms, and in medical practice, the forty-hour week is routinely opted out of, as working week hourly limits are not uniform.

Such opt-outs have allowed governments to repeatedly undermine international standards which have been agreed through the International Labour Organisation (Ilo). Even in countries where this isn’t the case, or where exemptions do not exist, the rules are routinely ignored or abused. Some of this reflects weak punishments for abuse of the system – in Ghana and many other countries companies face nothing more than a small fine for being caught out.

Ilo agreements, negotiated at international level, have seen hundreds of countries sign up to a raft of progressive legislation. Women’s rights, the right to free assembly, measures against impromptu sackings and enforcing redundancy rights are all common. But in the majority of cases, law-breaking reflects the weakness of mass movements in backing up laws passed as part and parcel of international agreements.

In recent years, a huge array of information has come to light illustrating horrific working practices around the world, making a mockery of such laws, which are simply ignored. Your iPod, made in China, is built by workers who spend more than a third of their working lives pulling shifts which total 60 hours or more over seven days. The home of communism has an official limit of eight hours a day and 44 hours a week.

The bananas you eat, grown and picked by Fresh Del Monte, sees workers in Costa Rica spend 14-hour days cutting, or packing, or washing, despite an eight-hour limit and 48 hour week. The chocolate you indulge in is produced not just on a 12-hour shift, but via enslaved African children on the Ivory Coast, which has signed up to an eight-hour day, a 40-hour week, and as you might expect, laws against slavery.

The massively widespread nature of these abuses reflects a general rule – that weak grassroots support of even the most progressive legislation renders it null and void.

Where strong labour forces prepared to fight for their rights has existed, by contrast, the results have been spectacular. In Europe, France and Germany have had some of the strongest and most militant post-war labour movements. As a result, France has a 35-hour workweek enshrined in law, and Germany has at times seen working weeks of far below that, particularly in the motor industry.

Further afield, Bangladesh has recently come under scrutiny in the radical press for the ferocity of the labour abuses taking place there. Long hours followed by withheld pay, widespread corruption and physical abuse of the workforce have not been uncommon. The Jute industry, producing cheap fabric in massive mills employing thousands of people, has as a result of these years of abuse formed powerful trade unions and taken part in mass militant activity, including strikes, occupations and even rioting. The success of the labour movement in defying major business concerns is such that the military took control to ‘restore order’ last year.

Despite such massive revolts, the average workday for 20-30% of the population is still 10-14 hours a day, and over 50 hours a week. Bangladeshi law has for years stipulated a nine-hour workday, and a 48-hour week. Yet average working hours for the whole of Bangladesh have fallen at a considerable rate in the last decade, to 32 hours a week from a staggering average of 59 hours a week in the 1990s.

It is this ability to fight which has seen the promise of the eight hour day become a reality for some – though not all. Governments around the world have over the decades signed up for a huge number of rights and regulations which satisfy the dreams of liberals and social democrats and progressive thinkers.

But without the strong arm of labour to enforce these rules, nothing happens. People continue to have their ‘rights’ ignored, under threat of sackings, or wage withdrawals, or worse. States, without mass pressure to make them do what they can so willingly promise, have only the honeyed words and veiled threats of investors and business leaders to influence them, and they act in kind.