Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Ill-Effects Of Compulsory Lunch

I found out something the other day about my workplace regulations that I think I knew, but that has slipped back into the recesses of my mind. Under legal compulsion we employees are obliged to take at least 30 minutes lunch break.  So if I want to work through lunch and leave off 30 minutes earlier, then according to the HSE Working Time Regulations I'm breaking the law.  This basically means that if I can find better employee-use for my time then the law restricts my use of it. Is it better that lawmakers err on the side of 'health and safety' caution, or better that my ability to control my own devices is adhered to?  My gut instinct is they're doing the right thing - but at least in one sense it is constricting, because it has negative spillover effects.

Here's why. If I go into a sweet shop to buy sweets then the sweet shop owner is the supplier and I am the consumer. But in the labour market, the equivalent of sweets is the labour itself - meaning employers are the consumers of labour, and employees are the suppliers. I'm selling my labour, and the HSE Working Time Regulations are telling me about the quantitative service limit imposed on what I'm selling. When it comes to sweets, or just about any saleable product, we have regulations imposed in the form of minimum standards (criteria that products must meet). In other words, a sweet shop owner can't just sell anything as a sweet, because there are parameter lines (product quality, edibility, sell-by dates, trade description, copyright, etc) within which his product must be placed.

So while saleable products mustn't fall below a certain quality, the HSE Working Time Regulations are ostensibly saying the opposite about labour - that is must not 'exceed' a certain quality, where quality means hours generated.  By working through your lunch you're exceeding the standards, even if for whatever reason your doing this has proved immensely beneficial to you and the company.

I'd hazard a guess that if you asked most politicians about the benefits of this law they'd tell you it is for the benefit of those with the propensity to work too hard (try it by emailing your local MP if you're curious). That's about the opposite of the truth; the law doesn't benefit those with the propensity to work too hard - it punishes those whose ability for hard work makes up for other inabilities - and it benefits those with the 'other abilities' the hard workers might lack.  Suppose I employ two project coordinators whose overall output is of equal value, but whose qualities differ.  Matt is smarter, but Tim is a harder worker, often in contravention to the HSE Working Time Regulations. If I stop Tim, who do I benefit most? Not Tim. In stopping Tim I impede his ability to be on a par with Matt, and reduce his chances of a promotion, because it's Tim's hard work that puts him on the same par as Matt. Denying someone the ability to work too hard benefits not the extra hard workers but those with better qualities in other areas.

Working Time Regulators are trying to keep the price of products higher than their market value, so they must stop those producing products from competing on quality.  Of course, I cheated in that last sentence - I said 'products' instead of 'labour' - because it would be corruption if it were done with products, yet perfectly acceptable when done with labour. Working Time Regulations do not get rid of competition between workers - they merely artificially confer benefits on some skill sets at the expense of others.  In fact, to take it to its extreme, if you got rid of skill-based competition altogether, you'd end up with employers discriminating on much less desirable things like looks, skin colour, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and similar such considerations we wouldn't wish to see in the workplace.

So at least in one sense, employees don't need the kind of regulatory protection in the labour market that stops them working hard.  Just like the free market itself - competition between employees allows them to compete on an even playing field.  Here's an illustration that should help.  Suppose there's a specialised type of data-reader computer that is manufactured. If the most efficient computer-maker could produce such a computer at the cost of X, then X will be its market price. In a free market economy, competition between providers drives down the price of goods, which is good for buyers and bad for providers. To avoid price competition there could be collusion, where it is agreed that no one will sell this type of computer for less than Y, where Y is double the value of X. But imagine what then happens; providers who are no longer competing on price now start to do the natural thing - they compete on quality instead.  If I can make a better computer for Y than you can, I have an advantage, because our prices are the same, but mine has qualities or features that yours doesn't have. So the only way to retain the benefits of our collusive minimum price agreement is to restrict the quality of the type of computers being made - which is to impose maximum standards by ensuring neither of our computers is qualitatively better than the other one.  If you can see how absurd that is, you should have a sense of why employment regulations don't benefit those they're supposed to benefit.

You may say that regulations are good for a reason that seems obvious - they guard against over-working, which as a corollary guards against tiredness, aches, cognitive impairment, not eating enough and so forth. but I think this assumes the wrong thing twice over; 1) That arbitrarily designated times imposed by the Government are better than other times that could be imposed, and 2) That we are not the best at deciding what is best for us.  Not only are both of those manifestly wrong; as well, there is an incorrect assumption attached to it - that people only manage their own affairs because of legal precedents.  That's obviously not the case; the reason we aren't over-working or cognitively impaired or short on food is because we know best how to manage our affairs.  To offer an analogy; the reason supermarkets don't employ a member of staff to direct customers to checkouts is that it would be a completely superfluous job post, because we shoppers are just as good at assessing queues, the number of shopping items for each customer, the speed of cashier, etc as a paid member of staff would be.  The upshot is, employment laws conceal hidden costs that impair those they are supposed to protect - because we are the best at deciding our life patterns - and no one is a better custodian of our own destinies than we are, including our ability to sell our labour.

* Photo courtesy of bbc.co.uk