By Sarah Farr, International Labor Rights Forum
The average number of hours worked by private sector, non-farm employees can be a window into the health of our economy and into the lives working people nation-wide. New data released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) points to a disturbing downward trend of average weekly hours worked in the U.S. In fact, the annual figures for average weekly hours worked has been steadily declining since the BLS first started recording this data in 1964. Workers in 1964 worked an average of 38.5 hours per week. As of 2008 that number had dropped to 33.6. What does this mean on a practical? Well, assuming the average hourly private sector wage in 2008 is $18.08, a reduction of 5 hours per week means slightly over $90 lost per week. Over a year that could calculate to almost $4,500.
More frightening, however, is the fact that the decline in the average weekly hours for U.S. workers is more likely a reflection of the increasing number of workers employed part-time for economic reasons (“economic reasons” means that part-time employment is not a result of personal preference, temporary illness, holiday work, etc.). The current number of workers employed part-time for economic reasons is hovering around 9 million—the highest since the BLS first started recording this data in 1955.
What’s more disturbing? The current rise in part-time workers has not been steady or gradual. Quite the opposite, in fact. The sudden rise of part-time employment, which you’ll see is linked to economic recession (see the rise in the early 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, all periods when the U.S. economy was in recession), is part of a growing trend of labor casualization or flexibilization. Casualization of the workforce occurs whenever workers are employed in a casual, temporary, or otherwise non-permanent and non-full-time capacity. In recent years, casualization has become an increasingly visible problem, and those workers affected are often subject to lower pay, barred from their right to join a union, and denied medical and other benefits. Companies will often hire several part-time workers instead of one or two full-time workers to avoid their obligation to provide benefits, to divide the workforce, and to dissuade unionizing efforts. These trends are present in both the U.S. labor market and across the world.
Another form of labor casualization is the growing use of contracted and subcontracted workers in the U.S. and throughout the world. In Pakistan, for example, Unilever’s Lipton Tea factories currently hires 8,000 workers through contract labor agencies. This means that those 8,000 workers do the work of actual Unilever employees, but are not treated as permanent employees, and are thus faced with job insecurity, lower wages, lack of benefits, are barred from joining unions, and are unable to claim other basic worker rights like paid medical leave. At Khanewal Lipton Tea factory, 723 of the 745 employees are hired as contract workers and classified as temporary, despite the fact that the average number of years worked at the factory is 15 and some have worked there for as long as 30. At the Khanewal factory, workers are fighting back with the support of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers (IUF) and demanding that they be recognized as permanent employees and accorded all the workplace rights the deserve. See ILRF’s Urgent Action page for more information.