Canada is Overtime Nation. Nearly two million Canadians work overtime on aregular basis - an average of nine hours per week - and most of that isunpaid, according to Statistics Canada.
And you thought we had it easy. Didn't a study on the Globe and Mail'sfront page recently point out that Canadians work42.2 hours a week? That's twelve minutes less than Americans and thirteen hours less than Koreans? Yes, but weekly averages don't tell us how those work-hours are distributed, or how many people who work overtime wish they didn't have to. And they don't tell us how many new jobs could be created by not using overtime labour.
Europeans, who already work shorter weeks than Canadians, have beenpondering such questions deeply. Their governments are moving to furthertrim the work-week and discourage overtime. Canada pays no heed. Instead, ourtax structure and reward-the-grinder work culture encourage employers tokeep down the number of employees and push them harder.
Look at British Columbia's hospitals. Swamped with overwork and seeking toattract more recruits with higher pay, B.C.'s nurses initiateda job action by refusing to work overtime. A backlog of 65,000 patientsawaiting surgery soon developed. Within a month, more than 800 surgeries hadto be cancelled in the Capital Health Region of Victoria alone. In healthcare, overtime "has become structural," concedes Gary Moser, CEO of theHealth Employers Association of B.C. "We've becomedetrimentally reliant on overtime to get the job done."
Besides the nurses, other unions are fighting against overtime. At PowellRiver's pulp mill, for example, the Communications, Electrical andPaperworkers Union is bargaining for less overtime as an alternative to layoffs. That is one good reason to slash overtime across the nation. Itwould increase employment for others, creating up to a quarter of a million jobs by some estimates.
"Overtime is not effective," says B.C. resident Bruce O'Hara, whose booksinclude Working Harder Isn't Working. "It is bad for morale, and leads to accidents, more sick-leave, lower productivity."
None of which is good from an employer's point of view. But "the problem isthat these expenses are hard for employers to quantify," says O'Hara,because standard bookkeeping procedure makes it difficult to break out howmuch is due to overtime.
The costs to workers' well-being are clear enough. More than a quarter ofU.S. employees often or very often felt overworked, according to a studyreleased last month by the non-profit Families and Work Institute. About one-quarter of respondents said they workedfifty or more hours a week, while twenty-two percent said they worked six toseven days a week. "Those who said they felt overworked were more likely toneglect themselves, lose sleep, and report high levels of stress, and lesslikely to feel successful in their personal and family relationships,"summed up one news report.
While Canada mimics our neighbour to the south, Europeans are busilyenacting shorter-work-week policies that have the doubly enviable effect oflowering unemployment and giving working citizens their lives back. The keyvariable, explains O'Hara, "is how expensive it is to make people work morethan they want." That's where our policies fail. Ottawa clings to a payroll-tax and benefits system that rewards employers for using overtime hours rather than new hires to meet rising workloads.
Most European countries, by contrast, tax the first hours worked at a lowerrate than the last. The Netherlands is a good example. "They have shiftedtheir payroll-tax structure to exactly the opposite of ours," says O'Hara.In the aftermath, Dutch unemployment has plummeted to 2.7 percent, withthirty-eight percent of the population working part time by choice. Similarpolicies in France have helped cut unemployment by more than a third in thelast two years.
Still, tax incentives can only do so much. They can't change the fact thatbeing self-employed often means being one's own exploitative boss. And incorporate settings, salaried workaholics will still tend to get thepromotions and pay raises - and then expect similar behavior from ambitiousunderlings.
This is where the nurses of B.C. may be doing all of us a favor - bychallenging the very essence of our work culture.
When public-sector unions go on strike, it can mean a public-relations black-eye for organized labour. The inconvenienced are regular folks ratherthan cigar-chomping CEOs. So, when the public servants reject a twenty-twopercent raise bringing them to $32 an hour, as the nurses have done in B.C.,taxpayers who earn far less may be tempted to write the strikers off asgreedy and out of touch.
But striking public-sector workers can gain the moral high-ground when seento be putting themselves on the line to establish a wider principle: a newset of expectations about working conditions for all. This was the case withthe forty-hour work-week and universal health-care. Maybe overtime is next onthat agenda.
On June 19, B.C.'s newly installed Liberal government passed legislation toforce nurses to end their job action and go back to working overtime. Morethan a thousand nurses and other health workers took to the streets inprotest. "Many nurses simply won't do it," nurses' union chief DebraMcPherson has declared. "They see it as their responsibility to solve thenursing shortage and for the use of overtime to end."
David Beers is a writer and editor based in Vancouver. For more onlimiting overtime and shortening the workweek, seehttp://www.web.net/32hours/betterti.htm and http://www.vcn.bc.ca/timework/.A version of this article previously appeared in The Vancouver Sun.
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