I have had a wonderful holiday this year as I hope you did if you had time off. I really enjoyed having more time to do things that get squeezed during the working year. Time to spend with family and friends, time to be alone, time to walk , to read and to reflect. I am sure as we made our resolutions for 2011 or reflected on the year ahead many of us thought about spending more time on things other than work and trying to achieve better balance in our lives.
In my previous role as CTU Secretary I led our work on the issue of work life balance. In 2004 we produced a publication called ‘It’s about Time’ which looked at the issues around people achieving balance between paid and unpaid work, family and personal time. (You can find a copy on the CTU website www.union.org.nz). New Zealand has very long working hours compared to many other OECD countries. For low and middle income earners these long hours are often driven by low wages. Many workers on the minimum wage or just above it work more than one job to try and earn enough to make ends meet. Long working hours are not solely caused by low wages as can be seen by long hours worked by those earning high salaries. Work intensification is a well documented phenomena – less people doing the same or more work. Not by working smarter but by having to work harder and longer.
Currently there are many New Zealanders with too much non- working time, – the huge number of unemployed and the less well recognised numbers of underemployed. This lack of paid work is a fundamental problem as it impacts on people’s ability to survive financially.
Time pressures and lack of balance can have major implications for people’s health, their relationships,their ability to participate in community activity or to contribute to their community in a voluntary capacity (a real problem identified by many organisations).
Dealing with this issue has many dimensions. These include – lifting wages; adequate leave provisions (domestic leave, parental leave, holidays, study leave, unpaid leave); limitations on working hours (NZ is very unregulated in this area); recognising and valuing unpaid work; changing workplace cultures and real flexibility in working arrangements (flexibility in the context of secure quality work, not the one sided flexibility in the many precarious working arrangements that becoming increasingly common). In ‘It’s about Time’ a number of very practical and positive examples of such arrangements negotiated between unions and employers are provided. These can vary from quite small changes at work eg ensuring employees can access a phone, to arrangements to reduce work hours (temporarily or permanently) or to have greater flexibility regarding working hours or work location through to additional leave provisions (above statutory provisions).
There was good progress made by the last Labour government, for example - paid parental leave, legislating for a minimum of 4 weeks annual leave, legislating around the flexible working hours (something the unlamented Pansy Wong claimed credit for National even though they voted against this!), requiring rest and meal breaks and regular increases in the minimum wage.
In two years of this National government we have gone backwards fast. Not only has there been no focus on improving the quality of working life but in fact there has been an ideologically driven attack on holidays and rest and meal breaks. From 1 April this year it will be possible to sell the 4th week of annual leave. Sadly leave will be sold not because most people want less annual leave but because of financial pressures. It is tough financially for low and middle income New Zealanders.
Labour is already showing that we will continue assisting people achieve balance in their lives by indicating that we will look at enhancing paid parental leave as part of a comprehensive focus on child development. This would be a very positive move for families and for society by increasing the chances of parents having quality time to bond with their babies.
The benefits of creating opportunities for people to better balance paid work with family, unpaid work, studying, taking part in community activities and helping others are wide ranging. This includes to individuals, to their children and other dependents, to employers by ensuring better recruitment and retention of a broader pool of employees and to the community as people can participate in the sporting, cultural, service, religious and other organisations that make up our society. For lifelong learning to be the norm we need this sort of flexibility too.
I believe this is an important debate to have. It is about our quality of life. An ageing population makes it imperative and adds new dimensions to the issue, for example the increasing number of people trying to care for children or grandchildren and ageing parents, or the needs of older workers who will want or be expected to be in the workforce for longer and who will have particular limits on their time at (paid) work. This is also an important issue whether or not a person has caring responsibilities. The demands on peoples time vary throughout their life. For example a young person without children may want flexibility to finish a qualification or travel or play competitive sport as well as being in paid work.
We are all probably aware of people who regret that they didn’t do certain things during their life, commonly many people regret that they didn’t spend more time with their family. I don’t think that when people look back on their lives there are many who regret that they didn’t spend more time in paid work. A very interesting piece of research by an Australian academic, Barbara Pocock, shows quite clearly that what children want most is quality time with their parents.
It’s about Time!