Working excessive hours is making workers ill, damaging their relationship with loved ones, and putting themselves and the general public in danger. These were the conclusions and testimonies of the Burning the Candle at Both Ends fringe meeting that Unite held during this week’s TUC Congress and which was expertly chair by Dr Faiza Shaheen (pictured below), the director of the think tank Class.
The fringe came on the back of a survey of over 13,500 Unite members operating in passenger transport, lorry driving and the construction sectors about excessive hours.
The survey found that three quarters of the workers surveyed were suffering physical health problems due to long hours, while over half of respondents said that excessive hours was damaging their mental health.
The survey found that between 73 -80 per cent of respondents said that their family life and relationships had been damaged due to their working practices.
Opening the debate, Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland (pictured, main image) emphasised that employers need to be reminded that “people have to be treated like humans”. She also spoke about how increasingly, every second of a workers’ day was controlled and monitored and gave the example of a major US parcel delivery company, which instructed their workforce to put their keys in their mouth when returning to their van as this would save a few seconds in getting back into their vehicle.
Lived with sleep deprivation
Unite lorry driving activist Jeff McFathing (pictured below) told the meeting how he worked a standard 78 hour week, which had limited him seeing his children grow up and meant that for 20 years he had “lived with sleep deprivation”.
McFarthing is certainly not the only worker suffering from a lack of sleep. Due principally to a lack of time between shifts, the overwhelming majority of respondents to Unite’s survey (85-87 per cent) said they got six hours of sleep or less a night. It is recommended adults should have between seven to nine hours.
McFarthing also pointed out The Highway Code, which recommends that drivers should not begin a journey between midnight and 6am because of a lack of alertness. Despite this his usual starting time was 2am.
Exhausted bus drivers
Joanne Harris, a London bus driver (pictured below), talked about how research showed that in recent years 25 people had been killed in accidents with London buses and thousands had been injured. Falling asleep or being extremely tired was a major factor in these tragedies.
Harris explained that drivers are undertaking “a standard” of 12 hour shifts in cabs which are in effect a “greenhouse” often without air conditioning which is a major factor in drivers falling asleep. Unite’s survey revealed that 10 per cent of bus drivers had fallen asleep at the wheel in the last year.
Harris also explained that as a result of years of different and constantly changing shifts, “I can’t sleep for more than four hours. She also said that she had been forced to go part-time as she could no longer cope with the long hours of a full-time job.
Harris emphasised that low pay was the reason that drivers undertook long hours: “Bus people are paid so badly they work themselves to death.”
29 hour shift
Construction activist Declan Murphy (pictured below), gave a hair tingling account of his years of experience as a shuttering carpenter on major sites across London. Operating in all weathers he worked a 70 hour week for years and on one occasion on a major project on Paddington he once worked 29 hours without a break.
Murphy’s experience of long hours was reinforced by Unite activist Malcolm Davies, who in a contribution from the floor recounted how while working on the Millennium stadium he regularly worked 99 hours a week. On one occasion he finished work went home and immediately briefly fell asleep. Waking up and due to being exhausted he returned to work believing his next shift was due to start, only to be told by the site gatekeeper that he had only left work an hour ago.
Murphy described how long hours affected his health, “illness came easy and left hard.” He reminded the meeting that as well as working long hours, many construction workers in London commute for three hours a day or “live in digs during the week, resulting in no family life.”
Murphy also told the meeting how it was vital that construction workers need to be educated on the effect of long hours and told the story of how on one site, a foreman and a banksman competed to see who could work the most hours. Although the foreman won, “he is now divorced and in extremely poor health.”
Janet Newsham the chair of the Hazards Campaign gave an overarching assessment of how long hours were damaging the health of workers from many different sectors and making workers ill.
She highlighted that while training workers in mental health first aid was important, “it was a sticking plaster and avoided tackling the root causes of mental ill health at work.
She also reminded the audience that “most fatigue related deaths are not even investigated by the HSE and other enforcement bodies.”
Journalist and writer Ellie Mae O’Hagan made the important point that the government is able to herald falls in unemployment but “no one is focussing on the quality of work, dignity and fairness, due to the absence of workers voices in the public sphere.”