Australians are working an average of six hours’ unpaid overtime a week, a total of $106bn of free work given to employers every year.
An Australia Institute survey of 1,459 people to mark the 10th anniversary of Go Home on Time Day, found Australia suffers from an epidemic of overwork while others complain of underemployment.
The survey suggests the rates of unpaid overtime are increasing, to an average of six hours’ unpaid work a week in 2018, up from 5.1 hours a week in 2017 and 4.6 hours in 2016.
It found that despite high levels of overtime, the Australian labour market is increasingly polarised with “a significant increase in those wanting more paid hours”, up to 40% from 34% the year before.
A report by Troy Henderson and Tom Swann of the Centre for Future Work at the Australia Institute concludes that workers are completing 312 hours of unpaid overtime per year, the equivalent of two months per worker, per year.
“This widespread non-payment for so much of Australians’ working time reduces family incomes, weakens consumer spending, and exacerbates the challenge of work-life balance,” the report said.
“In an era of wage stagnation, underemployment, insecure work and significant cost of living pressures, Australian workers cannot afford to give their time away to employers for free.”
Unpaid work is highest among the self-employed (8.39 hours a week), full-time workers (7.07), part-time workers (4.15) but is also common among casuals, who generally want more paid work but still work 2.83 hours’ unpaid a week on average.
According to the survey, unpaid overtime is more common among men (7.04 hours a week) than women (4.8). Workers in their early and mid career do the most unpaid overtime – 7.85 hours a week for those aged 25-34 and 7.4 hours a week for those aged 35 to 44.
The Fair Work Act in theory limits maximum hours of work to 38 hours a week and contains a right for workers to refuse to work “unreasonable” additional hours.
However, the law does not contain a definition of “reasonable” additional hours, merely a list of factors to consider such as the usual patterns of work in the industry and the nature of the employee’s role.
Henderson, an economist at the Centre for Future Work, said that “time theft takes many forms, including employees staying late, coming in early, working through their lunch or other breaks, taking work home on evenings and weekends or being contacted to perform work out of hours”.
While most Australians “wouldn’t dream of working for two months without pay … it’s spread out over the whole year and has become part of the implicit expectations of too many jobs”, he said.
“Today we ask that all Australians go home on time and try to limit the unpaid overtime they work.”
The report recommended that the labour market should “convert precarious jobs into regular secure jobs, providing more hours to paid work to underemployed Australian workers”.
“To end the epidemic of ‘time theft’ regulators must enforce existing rules regarding maximum hours of work on a more consistent basis.
“Finally, workers (individually and through their unions) must demand that employers respect their right to leisure time – for their own benefit, and for the good of Australian society.”
The survey also found that 70% of workers said their workplace uses electronic or digital surveillance.
The most common forms of digital surveillance were employer monitoring of web browsing (43%), followed by monitoring the contents of emails (38%).
Three quarters (71%) thought that surveillance technologies reduce privacy while three in five (60%) said it reduces trust between workers and employees.
Only a third agreed they are a good way to make workers more efficient and work harder (37%) while most disagreed (53%).