Comment: European nightwork trends

Although much has been written about the health dangers of working at night and EU Directives establish a framework of legal restrictions on the duration of night work and who can work at night, there is little reliable data on its incidence. What data exists ignores the informal economy and employment without valid work visas – and such practices commonly take place at night. It is also a time when those with a formal primary job seek tax-free employment, especially during weekends.

Evening work (between 6pm and 10pm) and night work (after 10pm) are significant times for employment in many sectors of the economy. The hospitality sector is busiest during the evening, whilst utilities, transport and continuous production industries require almost equal numbers on night shifts to day shifts. Although manufacturing employment is declining due to greater automation in much of the economically developed world the gig economy is expanding fast with uber drivers, pizza delivery, 24-hour supermarkets all on the increase.

Official statistics based on employer surveys tend to heavily under-record employment at night. A more trusted pan-EU source of data are “Labour Force Surveys” that are based on interviews with individuals in their own homes.. Such surveys generally collect data about work patterns but – almost by common design – no country freely publishes night work data. In the UK it took a freedom of information request to the Office for National Statistics by the Trade Union Congress to release the data. What this indicates is surprisingly at variance with other published labour force survey data for Europe as a whole.

In October 2016 the Trades Union Congress published a reanalysis of labour force survey data for the UK. The statistics show that there has been a significant overall increase in night working between 2011 and 2016 from 8.8% to 11.8% of the UK workforce. However, the change in night working over the same period for men was 4.5% to 14%, whilst its incidence for women declined from 15.3% to 9.4%.

The spread of night working was fairly even between different age groups, but with a slight peak in the 25-29 and 40-49 age cohorts. However between 2011 and 2016 the growth of night working was not spread equally by region. It ranged from +57.7% in Northern Ireland and +30.3% in London to -12.7% in Scotland and -5.9% in the east of England.

According to Eurostat, the two countries with the highest incidence of regular night work as a proportion of all employed persons are Slovakia (16.7%) and Malta (10%). At the other end of the scale are Poland (2.3%), Croatia (2.5%), Portugal (2.7%) and Lithuania (2.8%). Overall in the EU the average level of regular nightwork has fallen from 7.7% in 2006 to 6.1% in 2015, but the Eurostat analyses also reveal a sharp downward trend in UK nightwork – contrary to that revealed by the LFS data obtained by the TUC.

The LFS data for continental countries has undoubtedly been “massaged” by statistics agencies and in any case significantly under-records the actual incidence of particularly casual night work, especially in locations such as tourist resorts where night working extends into the early hours of the morning. Moreover, the higher the level of the income tax “take” and social security contributions the greater will be the incentive to undertake undeclared work.

There are no statistics available indicating the incidence of on-call, stand-by and zero hours contractual arrangements. Much of these forms and elements of employment will cover night periods, especially when unexpected problems arise in operations such as breakdowns and security emergencies. One trend which is adding to working time is the growth of round the clock texting and emails of staff. Although legislation is being introduced in, for instace, France to limit this, it is impossible to prevent employees voluntarily responding to communications whenever they are sent. For many people in professional and managerial positions such communications are received when they are at home asleep, with the sender expecting a quick response. This is particularly a problem associated with home-based working arrangements and globalised operations.

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