Churches rally against the 24-hour economy

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In June 1998, churches in the Netherlands began a campaign against the "24-hour economy", claiming that this phenomenon damages the well-being of society. They have asked the Government not to wait, but to take immediate action. The initiative received both support and criticism. However, research indicates that today's "stressed society" is not a result of the 24-hour economy but of the way in which people live their lives.

In June 1998, churches in the Netherlands joined forces in a campaign against the so-called "24-hour economy" (24-uurseconomie). The campaign began by nailing seven propositions to the door of the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament and presenting a petition with 750,000 signatures in support. In these propositions, the churches claim that the the 24-hour economy has adverse effects on people's biorhythms, health and "collective experience of time". People are becoming more socially isolated, it is claimed, whilst the reproduction of social norms and values is in danger, as are church services. In short, the churches allege that the 24-hour economy makes people the "slave" of economic motives. While the churches refer to a "collective rhythm" bestowed on creation - the neglect of which will lead "people to not only lose sight of God, but also of each other and themselves" - other arguments against the 24-hour economy are well-known and more generally accepted.

Slaves to the economy?

Specifically, the churches are worried about the following developments. A third of the Dutch labour force works irregular hours, whilst a quarter sometimes works at night. Banks and temporary employment agencies now often provide a 24-hour service. Bonuses for irregular working hours have disappeared. Trade unions have to struggle during collective bargaining to prevent people from being forced to work on Sundays. In the service sector, the willingness to work in the evening and on Sundays is becoming a new selection criterion. Furthermore, the longer opening times of shops in the evening and on Sundays threatens to make Sunday a "normal shopping day". More and more, it is claimed, the Netherlands is sacrificing itself at the altar of the economy.

The churches criticise the philosophy accompanying the 24-hour economy - whereby "standing still means going back" and the prevailing tendency is towards "more, more and still more" - as hype, adding that it leads to cultural deprivation, a decrease in social cohesion and large-scale health problems for people who cannot keep up the pace. A third of all new disability benefit (WAO) claims are the result of psychological complaints. The churches feel that collective leisure time - which is good for people's biorhythms, health and recuperation - is a collective good and should therefore be protected collectively. They argue that the economy should exist within the culture because without cultural norms, an economy will eventually turn on itself.

The Minister of Economic Affairs was the first to react to the campaign. In a statement, he officially opposed designated times of rest, and favoured the freedom of the individual to choose these moments for themselves. The Minister rejected the pressures of the economy and said that employers and employees determine their own work schedules. He also rejected the "09.00 to 17.00" economy, still the pattern of half of all employees, and pointed to the popularity of extended opening times: more than 60% of the public now sometimes do their shopping in the evening, and 40% sometimes on Sunday. The Minister stated that stress has more to do with the fact that double-income families and single people now make up the majority of households: only 27% of households are now "single-breadwinner" families. Legal arrangements have been slow to adapt to this development. He acknowledged that the government can play a role in this respect by expanding childcare facilities, improving leave arrangements for care, and extending opening hours. This way, care and work can be combined harmoniously on a day-to-day basis. According to the Minister, the government should give people the room to fulfil their personal needs as much as possible.

Facts and figures

Is the Netherlands really on its way to becoming a 24-hour economy? Experts and researchers deny this. Here are some facts and figures: in 1975, 13% of all employees in the Netherlands worked in the evening or at the weekend. Currently, the figure stands a little over 14%. In 1955, 160,000 employees worked a full continuous shift - exactly the same as in 1997. In addition, the working week has been shortened from 48 hours in the 1950s to the present 36 hours. Put differently: in 1970 employees worked an average of 1,800 hours a year, while this decreased to 1,370 hours in 1996. In a recent study on trends in working patterns, the researcher Kea Tijdens concluded that although "the edges of the working day" have expanded in recent years, a 24-hour economy is nowhere in sight ("Zeggenschap over arbeidstijden. De samenhang tussen bedrijfstijden, arbeidstijden en flexibilisering van de personeelsbezetting" ["Involvement in setting working hours. The relationship between company hours, working hours and the flexibilisation of staff"], Kea Tijdens, Serie Wetenschappelijke publicaties Welboom, The Hague (1998)).

The social partners have certainly played their role in developing a more flexible economy. In 1993, the bipartite Labour Foundation spelled out its so-called "new direction" for collective bargaining, in which decentralisation and flexibility were accepted in terms and conditions of employment, in exchange for a collective reduction of working hours (NL9710137F). In 1996, a "flexibility and security" accord was signed in the Foundation, exchanging further collective reduction of working hours for further flexibility (NL9706116F). In private sector bargaining, these initiatives resulted in specific collective agreements being reached over the 1994-7 period. However, different sectors have different needs. In industry, for example, "just-in-time" production has become a central concern, whilst extended opening hours are more important to commercial services. Furthermore, although the collective reduction of working hours is highly valued by employees, flexibility is less popular (although the advantages of less traffic congestion accompanying a nine-hour day and a four-day working week are recognised). The president of the Christian Trade Union (Christelijk Nederlands Vakverbond, CNV) feels that the churches' slogan "Against the 24-hour economy" is a somewhat unfortunate choice; he would have preferred the secondary slogan "More time to live". This is, in his opinion, the real reason why the campaign drew so much support.

Commentary

The churches' action shows how Christian ideology clashes with liberal ideology. This confrontation was reflected in the headlines in the press, such as "social cohesion is no concern of the market" versus "long live freedom of choice". The question that remains is whether this debate addresses the heart of the matter. In all probability, it is not so much working patterns that cause today's stress, but the fact that both partners work in many of today's households. In addition, there is a growing group of single people who have no choice but to combine work and care. Together, couples now work more hours than the single breadwinner did in the 1950s. Consequently, the organisation of the household and caring activities has become more complex, especially when children are involved. Furthermore, there is a growing "active free time culture": French cooking classes for father on Tuesday, aerobics for mother on Thursday, whilst the children need to be taken to their music lessons on Wednesday and their swimming lessons on Friday. In short, people conduct a wider variety of activities simultaneously. Once viewed as raising the quality of life, this lifestyle has to be re-evaluated. Stress relief is now a common diagnosis and it is becoming clear that people should be doing this themselves. Seen in this light, the 24-hour economy does not appear to play a decisive role. (Marianne Grünell, HSI)

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