You’re Still Here? | You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone

Foreigners in Denmark, especially North Americans, often like to take a pop at the unions for reducing peak productivity and giving the workers too much power. They would like fewer rules and regulations, so that companies could be more flexible and give better service. They will definitely get their wish: crisis capitalism works in this way the world over.

Many people are chronically under-employed. Businesses get away with paying their workers literally nothing for months because they are on government work experience placements. Young people must exchange their labour for nothing more than a good reference. Public sector workers are vilified for having better conditions than in the private sector. Private sector workers have the sword of Damocles ever hanging over them. The era of respect for workers is ending, even in Socialist Paradise Scandinavia.

But before it goes gently into the night, I would like to raise a toast to the concept that my (and your) labour is valuable. That our lives are valuable and that we have time and energy enough to live them.

Five years ago, I started working at a Danish public school. I came from the UK system and was used to having no upper limit on my working hours. “Plus such reasonable additional hours as may be needed to enable the effective discharge of your professional duties,” is how they worded it. My working week was probably around 50-60 hours but I am not sure how many of those were actually productive, given how tired and frazzled I was.

In the Danish system, they plot out the things you need to do and ensure you do not work more than 40 hours a week on average. If you look after the library, go on a residential trip, keep a room organised or something similar, you ‘get’ a certain number of hours. What this means is that the more non-teaching things you do, the fewer hours you are expected to teach.

I know some non-teachers find this a bit confusing because they think we should teach from 8am to 3pm, and so any non-teaching periods in a day are free time. If it helps, imagine a surgeon having time during the day to do something other than cutting someone open. For example: holding a consultation, reading some research, having meetings, washing their hands etc.

Sometimes I find the system frustrating because it can be inflexible. Honestly though, mostly I do not notice the system. It just works in the background, giving me a decent work-life balance.

I did not truly appreciate how much it was benefiting me until the teacher lockout, in which the government fought successfully to take it away.

From next year, the system will change. The idea was to free schools from the laborious process of plotting out hours, but the new system is perhaps even more difficult to work with. Teachers are expected to stay on site at school from 8am to 4pm, and their headteacher must plan all their activities to take place during office hours. If they cannot fit everything that a teacher must do into those hours, the school must pay overtime at a higher rate. Presumably, parents’ evenings or weekend lesson planning, staples of teaching, will be time-and-a-half from next year on.

Many teachers do work outside of their hours. The easiest way to lose their goodwill is to take them for granted. If you tell them that what they do is not valuable enough to be paid for, then it is not valuable enough to be given as a gift either.

It goes without saying that schools in Denmark are not ready for the new system. If teachers are expected to do all their office work in school, they will need an actual office. Their workspace must be a certain size, the desk must be able to be raised and lowered, the lighting needs to be to certain speculations, and everyone must have computers and proper chairs. I wonder how many schools in Denmark have these legal requirements in place ahead of time, how many are working towards them, and how many are going to be caught on the hop.

Or the government could just remove those rules for workers if they are too expensive and annoying. All bets are off. Still, it was nice to be treated well while it lasted.


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