Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Fortune Magazine: America Dangerously Lagging in Worker Abuse!

The International Labor Organization (ILO) of the United Nations tracks data about how workers are treated around the world. Recently (June 2007), ILO released a study called Working Time Around the World, which examines employees' work hours in various countries. (You can find a press release about the report and a link to its key findings here.)

Here is how ILO sums up the study:

[A]n estimated 22 per cent of the global workforce, or 614.2 million workers, are working "excessively" long hours.

Shorter hours, the report says, can have positive consequences including benefits to workers' health and family lives, reduced accidents at the workplace, as well as greater productivity and equality between the sexes. At the same time, the study says a considerable number of short-hours workers in developing and transition countries may be underemployed, and thus more likely to fall into poverty.

"The good news is that progress has been made in regulating normal working hours in developing and transition countries, but overall the findings of this study are definitely worrying, especially the prevalence of excessively long hours", said Jon C. Messenger, Senior Research Officer for the ILO's Conditions of Work and Employment Programme and a co-author of the study.
Now, how does the United States come out in this study? Here's what ILO says:

In terms of those countries with the highest incidence of long working hours for 2004-05 (defined as more than 48 hours per week), Peru topped the list at 50.9 per cent of workers, the Republic of Korea at 49.5 per cent, Thailand at 46.7 per cent, and Pakistan at 44.4 per cent. In developed countries, where working hours are typically shorter, the United Kingdom stood at 25.7 per cent, Israel at 25.5 per cent, Australia at 20.4 per cent, Switzerland at 19.2 per cent, and the United States at 18.1 per cent.
So, the news about the U.S. is pretty good, then! We have our share of people who are working too darn hard, but fortunately the numbers are relatively low compared to other countries--less than one fifth of the total workforce. Maybe this makes up, in part, for the widely-reported fact that Americans get far less vacation time than their counterparts in other developed countries--and that the U.S. is the only developed country with no legally mandated time off.

But if you think it's good news that "only" eighteen percent of Americans are working "excessive hours" as defined by ILO, you aren't economics columnist Geoff Colvin. Here's how Colvin spins the exact same data in the current (September 3) issue of Fortune magazine:

By global standards, we're lazy. We've been getting lazier. And the days of the American dolce vita may be numbered. . . . When it comes to what we might call hard work, meaning the proportion of workers who put in more than 48 hours a week, America is near the bottom of the heap. . . . I know, I know--you're working harder than ever, and so is your spouse. But we're not talking about you; we're talking about the whole country, on average. And I'm afraid the findings are dramatic.
For Fortune magazine, it's a darn shame that more Americans aren't working excessive hours! What ever happened to the good old work ethic? How will our "couch-potato nation" ever hold its own against those hard-working Asian hordes?

Colvin caps his column with an anecdote from GE chief Jeff Immelt about visiting the Chinese Transport Ministry and finding everybody working all day--on a Sunday. Immelt frets: "I believe in quality of life, work-life balance, all that stuff. But that's the competition. So unless we're willing to compete . . ."

It's not clear to me in what sense Americans are competing against workers in a Chinese government agency, but let that pass. The real point of the story is that Jeff Immelt obviously wishes he could make GE's workers put in seven-day weeks--for their own good! So they can compete!

Particularly revealing, I think, is the part of the column where Colvin assures his readers that they themselves are "working harder than ever." We can see what this is all about. The mid-level executives who make up the bulk of Fortune's readers love to think of themselves as over-worked, over-stressed, over-burdened. (For all I know, they are.)

So Colvin, perhaps semi-sarcastically, throws them that crumb. His message: We, the dynamic managers of America, are more than pulling our weight. The problem lies with the playful, indolent darkies at the bottom of the totem pole--those administrative assistants, customer service reps, and assembly-line workers who are living la dolce vita and actually getting home in time to eat dinner with their kids once in a while! The outrage!

Fascinating, isn't it, to see how the world is viewed by people who fancy themselves the bosses of the rest of us?

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