Another Day in the UK, Another Jeremy makes the Headlines.
However, this time it’s not Corbyn, the controversial newly-elected leader of the Labour party, who is at the centre of the attention, but rather the UK Health minister. Jeremy Hunt, the Conservative MP has been facing a furious backlash from both the media and the public after suggesting that Brits should work as hard as the Chinese.
Whilst attending a Conservative conference, the politician argued that tax credits cuts were intended to incentivise the British public to work harder, and mark an important shift in the UK’s wor culture by “creating a pathway to independence, self-respect and dignity,” encouraging the public that one’s dignity is not contingent on their financial status but rather on the extent that they toil.
Hunt put forth that : “We want this to be one of the most successful countries in the world in 20, 30, 40 years’ time. There’s a pretty difficult question that we have to answer, which is essentially: are we going to be a country which is prepared to work hard in the way that Asian economies are prepared to work hard, in the way that Americans are prepared to work hard?”
And to the great astonishment of absolutely no one, it did not take long for Hunt to experience the glare of the British media, as they retaliated with scorching headlines such as ‘Jeremy Hunt wants Poor Brits to Work like the Chinese in New Insult, ’ ‘Jeremy Hunt wants us to work harder and die younger, and have some self-respect about it,’ and ‘Jeremy Hunt’s leadership claim shows a man grotesquely out of his depth.’
After all, Hunt’s speech is riddled with both insensitivity and hypocrisy. One can barely imagine anything more patronising than a well-to-do Oxbridge-educated politician, a recipient of more than his fair share of legs-up in life, instructing the British public that they quit their whinging about their financial concerns, whilst social benefits are cut. How exactly has he gained such an expert insight into our slack work ethics? Can he even spot us from his ivory tower?
One commentator on the Guardian, perfectly sums up the double standard: “Jeremy Hunt believes receiving money that you have done nothing to earn removes self-respect. I wonder if this includes inheriting a fortune from one’s parents? The level of self-loathing in the cabinet must be frightening.”
However, despite the evident callousness of Hunt’s comments, is there any logic to his argument? Would Brits benefit if they did exert themselves as scrupulously as their Chinese counterparts?
Given that Hunt is married to a Chinese-born wife and has also lived and worked in Japan – where he learnt proficient Japanese – he undoubtedly has had a great deal of exposure to Asia. It is clear that he has developed an admiration for the work ethic apparent in many of the continent’s nations.
As someone who has lived in China for almost four years, I can see this point. Nowhere else have I witnessed mega projects being carried out on such a rapid scale as in this country. Skyscrapers are built in mere weeks. Similarly, within the span of two years, subway lines have multiplied across the nation’s major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai.
Likewise, its impossible to say that the Chinese are not arduous workers. In fact, studies have found that Brits work on average 1,677 hours a year, the figure for China is estimated to be around 2,000 – 2,2000 hours.
Many of my Chinese friends and colleagues began their careers by leaving their families – parents, spouses or even children – thousands of miles behind, and finding work in the country’s major cities. In order to make ends meet, it was not uncommon for them to extremely work long hours to only gain a monthly salary equivalent to 200 GBP, or even budget on rent by sharing a room with as much as four other individuals. As annual leave in China is a shorter than in the West, mainly young Chinese workers only manage to visit their families during the country’s most significant national holiday, Chinese New Year.
This discipline may have been engrained during childhood as a result of the infamous ‘Tiger Mums’ and ‘Dragon Dads’ exerting enormous pressure upon their offspring to excel from an early age. Having lived with a Chinese household in 2012, I have first hand experience with this. Everyday after school, the family’s son took part in an hour-long one-on-one English class with me. Next came a lesson in either drawing, piano or swimming. Only at 9pm would the four year old toddler finally be granted some free time to play.
However, no matter how much I admire this great work ethic, I am not convinced that British people would fare better by following China’s lead .
For starters, one should be aware that regularly working extremely long hours does not necessarily enhance productivity. In fact, it confers the reverse, manifesting in a ‘productivity deficit.’ A recent study called the ‘Rules of Productivity,’ supports this idea. The study claims that individuals working 60 hours a week “ have a vague sense that they are doing worse, but never think that they should stop crunching. They imagine that working 40 hours a week will decrease their productivity. In fact, it will let them rest and increase their productivity.”
Unsurprisingly, the strain of long hours of grueling labour often lead to physical and mental health problems. An article by Forbes titled ( somewhat merrily) ‘Why Working More Than 8 Hours A Day Can Kill You,’ insists that “a combination of stress, raised blood pressure and unhealthy diets stemming from long working hours may be the cause of thousands of workers’ serious health problems.”
The harmful impact of China’s excessive work ethic is echoed by Li, a labour ecomonist, who told the Guardian that “Working overtime is not good for workers’ health and does not improve productivity and efficiency […] Chinese workers have to work longer hours than their peers from the more developed countries, such as the UK and US, because China’s production efficiency still lags significantly far behind those countries.”
And let’s also not forget the misery caused by unsafe working conditions as well as the restriction of trade unions, as well as the plight of China’s migrant workers.
Given the fact that the World Happiness Report has ranked the UK as 21st , whilst China only emerged as 84th may be a very telling indicator of the consequences of excessive labour. It’s clearly not in the UK’s favour to follow such measures.
As Jack Nicholson famously put it in The Shining : “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”