Workers of the World, Work!

Work, working hours and the working class

One cigarette shortens your life by two hours, one bottle of vodka by three hours, and a workday – eight hours.
— Anonymous
The Pyramid of Capitalist System
From Wikimedia Commons


Socialists, communists and anarchists across the world have been celebrating the International Workers’ Day on 1 May, and so to say, the struggle between workers and owners continues unabated. One of the foundations of this remembrance is best explained by the ubiquitous Pyramid of Capitalist System, a caricature from the early 1900s.

Our universe is so relative. Let me explain.

In the last quarter of the 1800s, the working class was demanding for an eight-hour workday. Earlier we know it ranged from ten to sixteen hours a day, six days a week and it wouldn’t be a surprise if many conformists then saw it as just normal. Then a century later, eight hours became the norm in accordance with concepts like that of Robert Owen’s an eight-hour labour, eight-hour recreation and an eight-hour rest. However, assuming it is further reduced because it ought to be and that has been the trend over the centuries—some day, people would find it hard to imagine how we can keep up with these eight to nine long hours. That’s the relativity.

In a survey conducted by the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development a few years ago, the working hour in India (8.1) is more than the average of many developed countries. If we go by the number of hours, the Mexicans works the most (10 hours) and Belgium (7.1) the least. It also found that working longer hours does not necessarily result in more productivity. 

Legally, there are certain limits on working hours but it is systematically flouted by making ‘bargains’. We do know what is legal and what the reality is. In my first job eight years ago, it was ten hours, five days a week; and the Saturday-off was the bargain. Now it is eight and half, and six days but the daily half hour is counted as a lunch break. I had also worked in an organisation that operates eight hours, five days and has a fair system of severance pay. In the end, however, the rule is to toil 24×7×365.


The debate over the number of working hours initiated with the advent of Industrial Revolution and like the wall between workers and owners, it is not likely to fall anytime soon. Here, it is interesting to note an observation made by Bertrand Russell. In his 1932 essay, In Praise of Idleness, the philosopher wrote: ‘If the ordinary wage-earner worked four hours a day, there would be enough for everybody and no unemployment—assuming a certain very moderate amount of sensible organisation. This idea shocks the well-to-do, because they are convinced that the poor would not know how to use so much leisure.’

Two years earlier to Russell, John Maynard Keyne, the economist, had predicted that we will be working three hours a day by 2030.

In most of the developing and developed economies, the odds are always against the workers. Actually, the system is structured in such a manner. For instance, in India, farmers have been committing suicides in droves for debts that could amount to a few thousands of rupees but Vijay Mallya & Co. can loot in terms of billions, make a joke of the judiciary and fled for their summer and winter houses mostly in Europe simply unaffected by the law of the land.

Along with the number of working hours, the idea of work–life balance also appeared and ironically, howsoever it explains the necessity of balancing work and life, the concept is always in a negative coordinate, because most of the people simply cannot do it. No wonder, then, besides stress and other health issues, there is also a concept of karōshi, which in Japanese implies occupational sudden death. Family comes first but work can be more important! 

Arlie Russell Hochschild, the American sociologist, has a different perspective on the issue. In one of her seminal books, The Time Bind: When Work Becomes Home and Home Becomes Work, the professor emerita writes: ‘No work–family balance will ever fully take hold if the social conditions that might make it possible—men who are willing to share parenting and housework, communities that value work in the home as highly as work on the job, and policymakers and elected officials who are prepared to demand family-friendly reforms—remain out of reach’.

This monkey business of work–life imbalance is also the same reason why many people have developed the philosophies of degrowth, downshifting, Slow Movement and the likes. Similarly, psychological and spiritual growth is more worthy than material progress, the latter which comes with a literal heavy price but apparently there is not too many a taker.


In this context, the London-based New Economics Foundation proposed a attitudinal shift in ‘what is considered “normal”—down from 40 hours or more, to 21 hours’ or 30 hours of work a week. In one of its blog posts, NEF listed 10 reasons for a shorter working week that can result in:

1.    A smaller carbon footprint
2.    A stronger economy
3.    Better employees
4.    Lower unemployment
5.    Improved well-being
6.    More equality between men and women
7.    Higher quality, affordable childcare
8.    More time for families, friends and neighbours
9.    Making more of later life
10.  A stronger democracy

However, most of the contention against the contemporary long hours is lame like the concept of flexi-waxy working stuffs. It is because most of the time, people are going to question the level of productivity and not on how much you can become a robot. The consensus seems to be on the line of ‘make a ppt presentation and explain the pros and cons of your arguments’. If we were reasonable in the first place, we would not have to talk about long working hours. Still if we look from the conformists’ perspective, it was not the Marxists and their siblings, who popularised the eight-hour schedule but an American car-maker or precisely from the success of the Ford Motor Company that commenced the rule in 1914.

Albeit in essence, it took a group of anarchists to start the movement. The present International Workers’ Day is a commemoration of the Haymarket Affair of 1886, in which a group of anarchists bombed a labour demonstration in Chicago to resist against the police and make their political statement. There are newer developments, nevertheless, regarding the issue and we cannot help but notice it as a European phenomenon. For instance, the England-based digital Serps Invaders work just four days a week. Two years ago, Sweden initiated an experimental six-hour-working-day rule. It has been aimed at reducing sick leave while enhancing the happiness quotient of its people. But these should not imply longer hours for offshore workers!


The call for a reduced working hour has nothing to do with work-shyness. First, the eight-hour rule was based on assumptions and not on scientific grounds.  Second, psychology explains how our mind works. It is not ever possible for a human mind to be sharp for eight hour at a stretch. Third, it is a part of the same narrative that has been around for more than a couple of centuries. Just like the old sixteen-hour job is unimaginable now so is the eight-hour rule. More and more people are fed up of the 9–5 job which has now become almost a cliché.

Once upon a time, to take an example, it would have taken a half a year’s job for authors to send their manuscripts of a small book, get those checked by their editors, make amendments and get it ready for print. Nowadays it’s just a matter of a few hours and what’s more, all the processes can be carried out in real time.

As human societies teach the people to be obedient, more people are more worried about the increased workload than the overall benefits of working lesser hours. Our life is beyond the four walls of an office. If it is getting too much, we have the right to live in accordance to our will and as nature provides us, there’s a way to earn a livelihood when there’s a will.  

To sum up, a fifty-hour a week was a part-time job a century ago. There is no need to worry for the cutback. In fact, the only reduction will be, as mentioned earlier, in our stress and frustrations about things that we cannot complete on a Sunday or an errand that we need to run on a weekday. Last time when my Internet went kaput, I had to take a leave to get it repaired. It would have been a different tale if I work four days a week or six hours a day. Working for eight and half hours, in any way, does not mean I have been experiencing epiphanies of quality work.




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