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ACTU campaign on working hours and job safety.

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25 October 1999





The ACTU launched a campaign today on the issues of working hours and their impact on work safety.


These are important issues. Clearly employees cannot be expected to work ridiculously long hours. They are entitled to work in a safe environment and to have appropriate meal and rest breaks.


The Commonwealth Government gives a high priority to improving Australia’s occupational health and safety performance. In all jurisdictions, the employer’s duty of care towards employees in relation to occupational health and safety matters is clearly set out in the relevant legislation. This duty goes to the provision and maintenance of a safe working environment and one that is without risk to the health of the employee.


The point needs to be made, however, that the decisions about hours of work and other workplace relations issues are best made by the employer and the employees at each workplace, within the requirements of OH&S legislation, as this will ensure that conditions reflect the preferences of the workplace.


I think it is also important not to exaggerate these issues. A few facts help to put this into perspective.


Firstly, ABS data show that average weekly hours of work for all full-time employees (wage and salary earners) have increased over the past two decades, up from 39.1 hours in August 1979 to 40.2 hours in August 1989 and 41.1 hours in August 1998.


Secondly, ABS data on working hours by occupation show that managers, professionals and associate-professionals account for just under 60 per cent of full-time employees working 49 hours or more each week and for around 62 per cent of all full-time employees working more than 60 hours per week.


Data from the Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey 1995 (AWIRS 95) also indicate that managerial and professional employees were more likely to work longer hours per week than employees in other occupational groups.


So in fact it is mainly this managerial/professional group that tend to work very long hours. But it must be said generally that members of these occupations are fairly well rewarded for their effort.


Thirdly, it would be wrong to assume that many employees necessarily want to work shorter hours. For example, the Australian Workplace Industrial Relations Survey 1995 data shows that 80 per cent of full-time employees did not want to work shorter hours. In addition 62 per cent of employees who worked long hours (greater than 49 hours per week) also did not want to work shorter hours.


In a radio interview today, Greg Combet, heir presumptive to Bill Kelty at the ACTU, suggested that employers should look at increasing staffing levels in order to reduce any extra hours that are being worked in workplaces. I wonder whether the ACTU has discussed that particular idea with its members, many of whom rely on paid overtime to maintain their living standards? As the interviewer suggested, that idea sounded like a job creation scheme for the trade union movement! It is not a good idea for employees who rely on that paid overtime.


Fourthly, a myth that is often raised is that employees now have to work longer hours in order to maintain their standard of living. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Since the Coalition was elected real wages have grown by over 9 per cent in real terms — those are ACTU figures. That is in sharp contrast to the Labor years of falling real wages. What underpins this result is the dramatic improvement we have seen over the last 3 years in productivity levels at Australian workplaces.


By all means let’s have a sensible debate on these important issues. But let’s ensure we focus on facts rather than myths about Australian workplaces.


For further information contact: Ian Hanke 0419 484 095



rw  1999-10-27  13:10