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Nightmare of the night shift

Today’s tube strike shows worries over night work
Hajera Blagg, Thursday, August 6th, 2015

As the second day of a two-day strike among tube workers kicks off today (August 6), many commuters may wonder what the fuss is all about.

Don’t tube drivers get £50,000 a year? Hasn’t London Underground made a reasonable offer?
What’s buried beneath the headlines is that most people on strike today are not tube drivers, and the dispute isn’t mainly about pay.

While the vast majority of workers complete their working day in tandem with daylight, tube staff are being forced to take on night shifts when the new all-night weekend tube service begins running in September.

Some workers will be asked to staff stations all night alone — a danger to both staff and passenger— and they’ll have little control over their shift patterns.

A new TUC report shows just how harmful night work can be. It found that family life was often negatively affected — night workers have higher levels of marital problems and divorce, and the children of night workers often have behavioural and emotional difficulties.

But these negative effects on family life, the TUC report found, were often reduced when workers had more control over their shifts and when they were paid better, most likely because better paid workers can afford better childcare, and greater control means workers can tailor their schedules to meet their family and social obligations.

The physical and mental health toll that shift work takes on employees is also well documented. The report noted that there’s a significant body of evidence that’s shown that shift work, particularly night work, can lead to cardiovascular problems, obesity, breast cancer, diabetes, stomach problems such as ulcers, and depression, as well as an increased risk of injury.

As shift work becomes increasingly common — the TUC found that there’s been seven per cent increase in the number of shift workers since 2007, now totalling more than three million — the need to protect these workers becomes all the more critical.

Flouting the law

This is especially the case as employers are also more commonly flouting the law circumscribing shift work. The Working Time Regulations stipulate that night workers’ average normal hours of work cannot exceed eight hours for each 24-hour period. They also require employers to grant night workers free health assessments. But the TUC reported that both of these rules are frequently being violated.

The TUC recommended that, when night work is introduced in a workplace, workers should not be forced to take on night shifts, and when they do decide to take on such shifts, they should be given an element of control over their rotas.

The report also advised that night workers pay should be increased to cover costs such as childcare and other additional expenses that night work can often entail.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady argued that night workers, who often take on such critical work, must be protected.

“We all value night workers, whether they are cleaning our office, caring for a sick relative or driving all night so that there are fresh goods in our local shop,” she said. “But night work is hard and it disrupts family life. So we must show our appreciation for the sacrifices night workers make by ensuring they have sensible rights and protections.”

The TUC’s report sheds light on just how critical today’s tube strike is — tube staff aren’t walking out lightly.

Unite regional officer Hugh Roberts condemned London Underground management for refusing to acknowledge how destructive the introduction of night work can be.

“Any reasonable employer wanting to introduce unsocial night shifts and the upheaval that brings to their workers’ home life would be engaging with workforce representatives in a constructive manner,” he said.

“Instead London Underground has offered nothing meaningfully new. Its refusal to give firm long-term commitments on the number of weekend and unsocial shifts expected to be worked leaves our members unable to plan their future family time.”

As David, a tube worker noted yesterday (August 5):

“I don’t object to night working, but these things have to be done fairly and with an awareness of the impact they’ll have on workers’ lives. Anyone would feel the same if their boss suddenly expected them to work all night.”

Find out more about what today’s tube strike is actually all about here.


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