Saturday, August 15, 2009

Hours of Labour 11

by Sydney J. Chapman (translated and condensed by the Sandwichman)

All advanced industrialism today feels the strain of an accumulation of forces tending to bring about a reduction of the working day and will continue to be. However, a firm limit is imposed on the reduction of hours by the steep interest and depreciation charges on machinery when it works only a fraction of the time for which interest must be paid. Buildings deteriorate in value at least as much when shut up as when they are occupied; machinery continues to wear out, and sometimes rapidly, when it is idle; and the reserve fund necessary because the market may contract at any time and because machinery may at any time be rendered obsolete, is independent of the length of the working day. Many inventions involve an extended use of capital per head. Interest and depreciation charges, on the one hand, discourage the use of some innovations that require heavier capital investment, and, on the other hand, prevent those applied from reducing hours so much as they otherwise would.

To what extent depreciation and interest charges discourage shortening of the hours of labor depends, of course, on the relation between wages and payments for capital in the expenses of a business, which varies by industry. A rough calculation, nevertheless, for a particular industry of the saving in hours that might be effected by the continuous running of plant may be relevant. In the industry for which I have obtained figures, interest and depreciation would be reckoned ordinarily at 10 percent on the capital, about half for each, while wages would be in the neighborhood of 12 percent. Now, it being assumed provisionally that the depreciation charge varies as the hours worked, that the rate of interest is a constant, that the equipment of the industry remains as before and labor tends neither to leave the industry nor to flood into it, and that other costs of production are not affected, we find that hours could be reduced from ten to eight without any loss of wages, were the continuous running of plant substituted for the ten hours' day.

Actually, of course, some of the gain would be taken in the form of higher wages. Further, it must be noticed that the assumptions made do not accurately correspond with fact, though they are satisfactory for the purposes of a first approximation. On the one hand they lead to an over-estimate of the advantages of continuous running, because twenty-four hours of work could not possibly be squeezed into a twenty-four hours' day, and because the cost of artificial light during night work is disregarded, as are also the costs connected with awkward points in organzation, with the sharing of responsibility for the proper treatment of machinery, and with the fact, universally experienced, that night-shifts are not so productive as day-shifts. On the other hand, they lead to an under-estimate of the advantages of continuous running, because the cost of depreciation, as we have seen, is not proportional to the daily hours of work, because the shorter hours would raise the efficiency of labor, and because the demand for capital would be reduced, as would also the demand for land for manufacturing purposes. The inevitable contraction of the demand for capital is a point to be emphasized. If working hours per day were raised from ten to twenty-four, then, the reaction on the efficiency of labor still being disregarded, the old output could be obtained with five-twelfths of the old capital; the consequence would be a fall in interest, an augmentation of the amount of the plant per head of the people working with it at one time, and, therefore, an increased output per head.

In view of its great economies, the shift system calls for very careful consideration. The magnitude of the advantages that the wage-earners might hope to derive from its more extensive application has been denied, on the ground both of theory and of experience of those businesses in which it has been tried. But theoretic objections of a fundamental nature will be found to reduce to false doctrine concerning the determination of wages; and it must be remembered that as the benefits accruing from the comparatively few cases in which the shift system is practiced are by competition spread over the whole community, the gain of any individual is cut down to a very small figure. It must not be supposed that the effect of its universal adoption would be equally negligible.

Without general recourse to shift systems I cannot see any immediate prospect of much additional leisure for the mass of the population. Shifts could be designed so that no one shift would be particularly disagreeable to work in, and, if all shifts did not offer equal advantages, the workers could be moved round, being assigned for so many weeks to each shift. The shifts for foremen, and the management generally, which would have to be strengthened, might be arranged to run over a portion of two workers' shifts, so as to cement the new work on to the old; and the connecting of the work of each shift with that of the shift that it followed could also be secured by arranging that the unit of labor should be a group of partners, consisting of one man from each shift, it being the duty of each man before commencing work to see his partner in the displaced shift and receive instructions from him.

Naturally, a shift arrangement could only be introduced gradually. Are the objections to shifts of such gravity as to counteract their immense economies? The fact that objections were decisive in the past is no proof that they would be today in England, or even in industrial Canada. Conditions have been revolutionized in the last fifty years. Improvements in artificial lighting and in intra-urban transportation alone have swept away a mass of the unfavorable conditions that used to be associated with night work. And two or three shifts of approximately seven hours each, or three or four shifts of approximately six hours each – I state a not immediate attainable ideal – are very different in their effects upon social life, exclusive of those associated with the shorter period of toil for each workman, from two shifts of some ten or eleven hours each. With the shorter shift in use, arrangements could be made without much difficulty for all workers to get most of their sleep in the night, if they so wished, and to enjoy most of their leisure in daylight. But it is not my intention in this address to make a practical proposal or argue points of detail. I merely present certain theoretic corollaries that have incidentally been derived from our analysis of conditions determining the length of the working day. In conclusion, I may quote Dr. Marshall's final judgment that were shift systems more extensively adopted "the arts of production would progress more rapidly; the national dividend would increase; working men would be able to earn higher wages without checking the growth of capital, or tempting it to migrate to countries where wages are lower: and all classes of society would reap benefit from the change."


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