Sick boy of Europe

With long working hours and proven links to disease and death, the UK is the sick boy of Europe. The move to a service-based economy and the resulting social change is being exploited by Capitalism to prevent working class organisation, keep down wages, and attack working conditions.

Solidarity Federation article from 2004.

Submitted by Fozzie on September 13, 2022

We all know that if you take a job and you happen to live in the third world, you take your life in your hands. But workplaces in the so-called advanced economies remain dangerous places to be. You might have thought that shifting from manufacturing to a service economy would have made for a safer working environment and less mindless repetitive work on production lines. Sadly, capitalism does not work like that. Cutthroat modem management, driven by greed, is ensuring that the workplace remains as dangerous and as alienating as ever.

As workplace organisation has been crushed, capitalism has sought ever-greater productivity gains. The modem workplace now endures unending reorganisation, the constant threat of downsizing, outsourcing, privatising or some other “ing"... all hanging like a guillotine over the heads of the workforce.

Job insecurity is a permanent fact of life, and under this threat, workers are being forced to take on ever-increasing workloads, put in longer hours, and take shorter holidays. This is not only driving down wages in real terms and making working life ever more intolerable, it is also beginning to have dire effects on workers' mental and physical well-being.

Studies are increasingly showing that long hours, overwork and stress cause profound damage to our health. A 1998 study of the link between long working hours and heart attacks in Japan found that men working over 11 hours a day were more than twice as likely to have a heart attack than those averaging 7-9 hours. The authors conclude “that there seems to be a trend for the risk of acute myocardial infarction (heart attack) to increase with greater increases in working hours". A major study recently published in the British Medical Journal also found that workers who suffered stress at work were more than twice as likely to die from heart disease. These studies are borne out in research by the International Labour Organisation, which found 23% of deaths from circulatory diseases are work-related, with stress playing a major factor.

All this is particularly relevant for Britain, where working hours are longer than any other European country, and still rising dramatically (along with the accompanying stress levels). Latest figures show that 1 in 6 people now work over 60 hours a week - up from 1 in 8 in just two years. There is a class divide within these figures, with manual workers stating that they have to work long hours to make up for poor pay, while white collar workers state that pressure of work is the reason for the rising hours. Whatever; long hours are detrimental to workers health. The latest figures from the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) show that the number of people suffering from stress and stress-related conditions caused or made worse by work has more than doubled since 1990. According to the HSE, last year 13.4 million lost working days were attributed to stress, anxiety or depression, with an estimated 265,000 new cases of stress.

Mental illness is devastating in itself, but there is growing evidence that illness caused by work stress is increasingly resulting in workers taking their own lives. Official figures in Japan indicate that work-related suicide accounts for 5% of the total. If these figures were to prove similar in Britain, then work-related suicide would already be one of the biggest industrial killers here.

There is also mounting evidence that the constant threat of losing your job causes ill heath. A study over 7 years of 22,430 municipal employees in four Finnish towns, who kept their jobs during a national recession between 1991 and 1993, found that downsizing did not just effect those sacked, it also left those in work far more insecure, more likely to be ill, and more likely to develop permanent, debilitating health problems. The report also found that employees who had experienced major downsizing were also twice as likely to die from cardiovascular disease, particularly during the first four years after downsizing.

This study was backed up by a 2003 study reported in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (November), which assessed 1,188 white collar workers, aged 40-44 years, for depression, anxiety, physical, and self-rated health. The report concluded:

“The results of this study raise concerns about the adverse health effects in people who might be experiencing both high job strain and high job insecurity".

Such studies make daunting reading, and health experts are already predicting that that the top occupational diseases of the 21st century look set to be heart attack, suicide and stroke. Given the facts established by the above studies, a sizeable proportion of the 245,000 deaths caused by circulatory illness each year in Britain are work-related. The epidemic of deaths due to overwork is already with us.

USA; dying to make money

And it looks like things could get much worse. In the USA, that model economy so beloved by just about all British politicians (including that great hope of what's left of the Labour left, Gordon Brown), is already working people to death. As the Washington Post (hardly a radical newspaper) recently noted, “We're now logging more hours on the job than we have since the 1920s. Almost 40% of us work more than 50 hours a week". Figures from the US Bureau of Labour Statistics show that Americans now have the shortest holiday entitlement in the industrialized world (8.1 days after a year on the job, 10.2 days after three years).

So, while many trendy commentators are still bleating on about the service economy ushering in a new, more liberated society, transformed by new technology, sadly, the transformation can only be enjoyed if you have a private income, and not if you are stuck in a call centre or serving fast food 12 hours a day. Inevitably, behind the radical liberalism of such commentators lies ideas steeped in free market orthodoxy. They are consequently blind to the simple fact that capitalism may be going through rapid change, but the one thing that stays constant is its exploitative nature.

The same old methods used to extract profit from workers are still rampant, albeit concealed beneath glossy advertising, not to mention the non-existent world of “Sex in the City". The marketing gurus have been let loose to gloss over the reality of our own lives. Thus the dreaded 24-hour shift pattern is re-branded to become the exhilarating 24/7 society.

Behind this thin veil of virtual reality gossamer lies growing inequality, work- related illness, and plunging quality of life for the majority. Increased workloads and poor pay is ensuring that people are spending more and more time working and less and Jess time with family and friends. The post-modern pundits would have it that this is because in the brave new world, technological change has made work exciting and rewarding. Socialists and anarchists have long- argued that work should be a means of self-fulfilment and individual development. However, we have also long-pointed out that capitalism is a fundamentally alienating system. You cannot enjoy work if you do not have any control over what you do or produce, because this is nothing more than an economic form of slavery, which leads inexorably to a sense of alienation from oneself, and from society as a whole.

Europe; crap jobs

Contrary to the spin, modem capitalism has lost none of its alienating properties. An October 2002 report from the European Commission entitled Social precarity and social integration, reports the findings of Europe-wide surveys and notes:

“Only a minority of employees in 2001 were in jobs of high quality. Only 27% thought that it was true that there was a lot of variety in their work, and 28% that they kept on learning new things on the job. Only 18% reported it was very true that they had a lot of say over what happened on the job, and 21% that they had the ability to take part in decisions that affected their work".

And the trend is worsening, the researchers noted; in all four measures “task quality has grown poorer between 1996 and 2001".

The fact that, for the majority, work in the service sector remains as boring as work on the production line not only contributes to an empty life, it also makes us ill. A government report in 1997 “Whitehall II” found that “Low control in the work environment is associated with an increased risk of future coronary heart disease among men and women employed in government offices”. This ties in with the 2002 European Commission report which found that

“those who were in higher quality jobs were very significantly more satisfied with their lives and had substantially lower psychological distress (conversely, those with poor quality work tasks had much lower levels of personal well-being). Moreover, both higher work pressure and particularly job insecurity had strong negative effects for life satisfaction and psychological well-being".

It is true that work has changed in the service economy, but its central nature has not. Work remains as bad and dangerous in the new glamorous service economy as it was in the grey world of manufacturing. There is, however, one vital difference; the factory system spawned worker organisation rooted in an independent working class culture, whereas in the service economy, this has been rapidly eroded.

The good old days

With large pools of workers working together in conditions that bosses didn't care for, day-to-day factory life was very much dominated by relations between workers rather than between workers and bosses. This daily camaraderie between workers helped foster independent worker organisations within the workplace. These organisations, controlled by and for workers were based on a totally different set of values to that of capitalism. Within their own organisation, workers were able to express their ideas and develop a completely different culture based on solidarity and mutual aid, in opposition to the prevailing capitalist culture based on greed and narrow self interest.

Within this growing working class culture, people recognised that workers and management had nothing in common and were in fact in opposition. This in itself was a liberating process, and workers took confidence and pride in their own collective power. Though they had little control over what was produced, they were able to control the workplace as a social space. In the newsprint industry, management were not even allowed onto the factory floor. This truncated form of workers’ control did at least give workers a degree of control over aspects of their working lives.

There is a stark contrast when we turn to today. Modern service sector management have been determined to take control of the workplace as a social space. These mew’ bosses have realised that if profits are to be maximised, it is not good enough just to ensure that workers carry out their work; they must also control what they think and how they interact. In other words, human resource management seeks to control social relations within the workplace, and the way they impact on the production process. For this, there is a whole gambit of control mechanisms, including management controlled workplace meetings, ‘team’ meetings, and staff development programmes, not to mention the endless refresher courses.

All are aimed at dispelling any collective thought or ideas that lead workers to identify with each other as opposed to management. Their trick is to replace it with a workplace culture in which workers to see themselves as part of a team, whose aim is to meet goals set by management.

The Orwellian future is here

Once isolated from each other, it is far easier to persuade people, and control, manipulate and ultimately bully them into submission. The Washington Post caught some of the sense of this strategy in the already-mentioned article, when it stated:

“Vacations are being downsized by the same forces that brought us soaring work weeks, labor cutbacks, a sense of false urgency created by tech tools, fear and, most of all, guilt. Managers use the climate of job insecurity to stall, cancel and abbreviate paid leave, while piling on guilt. The message, overt or implied, is that it would be a burden on the company to take all your vacation days - or any”.

Under the service economy, the dignity and control exercised through workplace organisation that existed in manufacturing is in danger of being lost. As a result, management are more free to impose their will.

Capitalism’s desire for control is now reaching Orwellian proportions. New technology, from body part scanners to spy technology to lab tests, means the boss can now monitor workers constantly (and secretly) for supposed defects or aberrant behaviour, ranging from what workers say to what genetic testing tells them. More and more companies are bugging, harassing and monitoring their workers for drugs and alcohol, and whatever. Keystroke rates, web usage and emails are monitored, and telephone conversations eavesdropped.

Smart cards, introduced partly for ‘greater security’, are also used as a form of electronic tagging. They track workers’ movements, monitor rest breaks, and hold personnel and occupational health records.

McDonalds have done away with swipe cards and this year introduced hand and thumb scanners into some of their Canadian outlets. These biometric devices - machines that identify fingerprints, hands, eyes or faces - are getting cheaper all the time. Computer software is becoming extremely sophisticated at listening and monitoring, while “black box” and “works manager” devices can monitor and distribute work to offsite employees, who know what you do and where. Checkout workers and some warehouse staff have their every work action policed by stocktaking software. GPS devices use satellites to track vehicles from delivery trucks to snow ploughs. Remote listening devices are now used routinely to eavesdrop on telephone calls in call centres and telephone exchanges, and one US company set up its closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras to spy on union activists. Guy’s hospital in London was criticised for using hidden cameras in rest rooms.

Manufacturing may have reduced human beings to robots, but technological know-how is ensuring that social interaction is now under management control. From the union office to the locker room, big brother is watching. Monitoring is not just a means of checking production, it is also a way of intimidating workers, to deny them social space to act, to think, or to organise outside the prescribed company norms.

The 'roll over and whimper' tactic

Sadly, far from resisting this nightmarish world, the unions, in a vain attempt to bolster their power, are attempting to buy into it.

They may bluster on about intrusive surveillance techniques in the workplace, but in reality they help prop up management control over the workplace. Rather than resistance, they now preach partnership based on the management logic of inclusiveness. They embrace the crazy idea that we should all be working as a team for capitalism, and see this (totally unequal) partnership as a good thing that increases productivity. Their only critique is that capitalism would be even more efficient with union involvement.

Rather than challenge and expose the true nature of capitalism, the unions reinforce the marketing myth of a service-based high-tech economy staffed by far-sighted ‘nice’ employers.

In place of a real alternative, they offer the utopia of a high-tech, high-waged capitalist economy, with the union linchpins there to smooth over any minor differences that crop up. The fact that this is Walt Disney fantasy and we all know it does not seem to occur to them. They can’t understand why workers aren’t flocking to join organisations that argue we should embrace the bosses as “partners” to ensure greater productivity and profit.

The 'reasons to be cheerful' tactic

The promise of a better life in a brave new post-modern world may be fine for the glossy Sunday supplements, but it does not match up to reality. Capitalism remains as exploitative, alienating and dangerous to workers’ health as ever. Hence, the need for an alternative system is as acute as ever, if we are ever going to be able to live interesting, meaningful and fulfilled lives.

Politically corrupt, the unions offer barely a thread of day-to-day support, and no hope for any decent future. An alternative movement is clearly needed; one based both in the workplace and the community, and one through which we can all overcome our increasing isolation, and gain the confidence to defend ourselves against capitalism’s excesses.

The driving force of this new movement must be the fact that, under ‘free’ market capitalism, quality of life is getting worse. Capitalism by its very nature is brutal, and no amount of service sectorisation or technological innovation will alter that.

The decent future our movement must aim for is one based on human cooperation instead of greed. The aim must be human fulfilment, happiness and development, a society in which work will not just be a means of meeting basic needs, but also a way of achieving real individuality and personal development.

Such a society is not some far-off dream. Every act of solidarity in the face of management brutality is helping to create an alternative culture upon which that new society will flourish, here and now. As anyone who has participated in such an act knows, there is nothing more empowering. Even if it is small and local, it has long-term and global potential. Such day-to-day action, however small, is part of building the reality of the new society within the shell of the old.