Time and Labour

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 10.41.16A colleague shared and asked me for my thoughts on the recent decision of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) holding that employers who do not provide an office to employees must include compensation to employees for the time they spend traveling to and from their jobs (“Time taken to travel to work ‘should count as work’ according to European court” Independent 10 Sept 2015).

On a purely empirical level, excluding travel time by definition improves the productivity of employees since employers need not compensate employees for the time they spend traveling to and from the work site. Even if we were to argue that compensating employees for this time improves their well-being, perhaps in tangible ways, this would hold true for any number of policies employers might adopt — continuing education, extended sick leave, vacations, shorter work day — all of which could plausibly improve the well-being of workers, but also cut into the production function.

But let us suppose that on a more abstract level that improvements in productivity aim not only or even primarily at increasing rates of return for shareholders or increasing compensation for employees, but also the production of greater leisure time — time off the clock — for these employees. We could make a case for an indirect consequence of including travel time: increasing costs, decreasing productivity, are incentives for employers to adopt technological and/or administrative instruments that aim to recover this loss. So, for example, an employer faced with costs arising from compensation for travel time might find establishing a make-shift office — an administrative solution — more efficient than compensating the employee. Or, as is common in the US, an employer might find it more efficient to subcontract out than employee from within — another administrative solution. Or, where possible — which is the case almost everywhere in Europe, less so in the US — employers could provide employees with transportation vouchers and stipulate that they occupy themselves during transport in tasks that recoup the productivity lost by having to compensate employees during transport — a techno-administrative solution.

However, none of these approaches achieves the aim of opening up more free time for employees. Nor are they likely to. This is because they are grounded in the social fiction that employment — clock time — is required for society to function properly. We need the labour of employees. Employees need the compensation offered for their labour by employers. Consider for a moment the huge leaps in productivity our world has enjoyed since the mid-19th century. We need not list them here, but they are substantial. And on some level they surely help account for the contraction of the working day from 15 hours and 7 days to 12 hours to 10 hours and 6 days to 8 hours and 6 and then 8 hours and 5 days. Let us say that over this time, notwithstanding changes in taste and habits of consumption, we have restored to employees roughly half the clock time that once colonized their days. To be sure, since the 1970s, the working day has recolonized roughly half this time.

But this raises an interesting question about the ECJ’s ruling. On some level, no doubt, increased compensation is good. It allows employees to accumulate consumption and investment during their periods of travel. Moreover, it acknowledges what every employee already knows. Compensated or not, they were already “on the clock” from the moment they turned their attention away from art, leisure, love and learning to face their work days. This is obviously not new. Educators, in this sense, are almost always “on the clock.” Only the line worker truly gets to leave her job at the factory door. But the question this raises is whether compensating employees for travel time constitutes a further step recolonizing time by work.

Let us suppose that all time is compensated time; the time I am with my children; the time I am preparing meals; the time I am worshipping, sleeping, eating, working out. Let us suppose that it is all clock time; and if clock time then such time lends itself to the production function. How productive is my time with my children, preparing meals, worshipping, sleeping, eating, working out? Does my Happy Meal win for me that additional time-value I would have lost shopping and preparing food in my kitchen? Is my spending time with my children the most productive use for their time or mine? Would not a trained tutor or care giver be more efficient? The device around my wrist tells me how productive my sleep has been, how many steps I have taken, how many calories I have consumed — all of which lend themselves to the production function. Perhaps I already live in the world I am postulating. All that is needed now is to assign the proper value to all of these “leisure” activities — activities that contribute to or detract from productivity. Perhaps I already assign value to these activities. And, having assigned values, we could now properly value and compensate employees not just for travel, but for all of their “off the clock” activities; in much the same way that Henry Ford compensated his employees for the efficiencies they created (or consumed) “off the clock.” Yes to ballroom dancing. No to the jitterbug. Yes to church. No to the pool hall.

Europe has decided — as the US has not — to include housing, education, health, and welfare within their social franchise. Europe has already gone further than the US socializing efficiencies. This is all to the good. And, yet, I do wonder whether including more time in “time on the clock” might not be a step backwards.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.