Britain’s ‘voluntary’ overtime crisis

Far from being overpaid, public sector employees are showing their commitment to their cause, voluntarily, to a level which borders on exploitation, writes Tom Levitt (for Progress Online, 25 July 2017)

When Sally Plummer stayed on after the end of her shift to aid a patient suffering a cardiac arrest she thought little of it, knowing that this was the normal reaction of a conscientious nurse. When her good deed generated an £80 fine for overstaying in the hospital car park, which the authorities refused to waive, she saw red – and quit her job.

Perhaps Plummer’s was an extreme reaction but to two million public sector employees who contribute 8 hours a week of ‘voluntary’ (i.e. unpaid) overtime the dilemma is a recurring one. If your contract doesn’t stipulate the terms of any overtime or your extra contribution is not specifically endorsed by management then your excess hours won’t be paid. In this way public bodies, especially health and education, benefit from an £11Bn contribution of unpaid work from staff, often exceeding 8 hours a week, according to the GMB union.

This means that some workers aren’t being paid for up to a quarter of their working week, with 15 hours of unpaid overtime not uncommon. Excessive hours, say teachers’ unions, are a principal reason why many leave the profession.

Earlier this year the TUC reported that across the whole economy employers were benefitting from £33.6Bn-worth of unpaid work. Low and higher paid alike were affected, with London being the UK region where most employees – over a quarter – regularly worked some unpaid hours.

They proclaimed 24th February ‘Work Your Proper Hours Day’ as it represented that fraction of the year which workers collectively were contributing to work for free. On that day employees were encouraged to take their full breaks entitlement and leave for home on time. Frances Grady said “The best bosses understand that a long-hours culture doesn’t get good results. So we’re asking managers to set an example by leaving on time too.”

Pressure to work unpaid extra hours is often covert: those in caring professions like Plummer understandably don’t want to leave a client ‘in the lurch’; when long hours becomes part of the culture it becomes difficult to resist.

Even where unpaid overtime is anticipated (yes, such contracts exist) the result of doing it cannot reduce your average wage below the hourly minimum rate and nor can you be obliged to exceed the legal 48-hour maximum week. This was the judgment in a case brought by Unite in the European Court of Justice. Should Brexit actually happen the Working Time Directive would transfer to UK law – but for how long would its protection last? It would be relatively easy for a future UK government, one not sympathetic to workers’ rights, to water down the directive once outside the protection of the European Union.

The reality is that public sector budgets in particular are not going to be stretched or extended to reward those currently unpaid hours. Caring professionals, whose official pay over recent years has been static or even fallen, will find themselves obliged to make difficult decisions about their work/life balance; those who decide to keep their ‘voluntary work’ to a minimum may render themselves vulnerable to managers who question their commitment when cuts are on the agenda.

The real challenge here is for managers: to maintain the ethos and effectiveness of the service they run whilst engaging their employees to the full and genuinely making them feel valued – within existing budgets. They must cut their coats according to their cloth, as the saying goes. Today, far from being overpaid – Philip Hammond, take note – public sector employees are showing their commitment to their cause, voluntarily, to a level which borders on exploitation.