Mat Coward: Haunting Europe

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Mat Coward's lunch breaks, visits to the toilet, public parks and other threats to competitiveness  and productivity.

In a public park, somewhere in the UK, there is now a bench - ordinary, wooden bench, I suppose - which has built into it several computer connection sockets. This is an initiative between the local authority and Microsoft. It is there for the benefit of the public, apparently. Anyone who has a laptop will be able to sit on the bench and plug in their machine ... and keep right on working through their lunch hour. The service is free, incidentally. Isn't that nice? This is what Tony Blair means when he says that "Capitalism must be made to work for everyone." Right.

One of the major problems in the world today, I think we’d all agree, is feather-bedded keyboard-jockeys in the developed nations who don’t yet understand that the lunch hour is a relic of the pre-post-industrial age. The six-year-old Indian lepers who made your training shoes, and the chained-to-the-wall Bosnian refugees who built your stereo - they don't take lunch hours. Do they hell! Even if they were offered them, they'd refuse them. "No, siree!" they'd say. "We don't want no lunch hours. Why, by working through lunch we are able to earn up to an extra dollar a decade (prior to agreed stoppages)." These people know - and not only know, but chant as they work - the one great truth of the 21st century: "The Price of Competitiveness is Eternal Motion."

In the West, people are soft. Western workers confuse "want" with "need". Believe it or not, there are still people in call centres in greenfield sites all over Europe who are convinced that they "need" to excrete urine more than twice a day. They don't care what their constant traipsing back and forth to the bucket in the broom-cupboard does to productivity. And it’s so unnecessary! People only "need" to pee all the time if their consumption of liquids during non-office hours has exceeded recommended limits. What, and that’s supposed to be management’s fault? Sheesh!

Oh yeah, and then the unions say that staff being required to raise a hand and request permission from a supervisor before visiting the lavatory is demeaning. Right. Well, listen - you act like a child, you get treated like a child. I’m like - grow up, yeah? Restrict your intake, control your outflow. It’s not, like, rocket science.

Lunch hours ... can you credit that? That there are workers who still want to get out of the workplace for half an hour in the middle of the day, to sit in the fresh air, feel the sunshine on their faces (or the rain running down their collars), to feed their sandwiches to the ducks on the pond, to sniff the flowers. Scum! Luddite saboteurs! Your government doesn't pay out billions in relocation subsidies to multinational companies just so that you can spend half the day sniffing flowers. If these companies are good enough to offer you the gift of work - which they don't have to do, incidentally, they could just as easily install robots - the least you can do is put in a full day. Surely to God.

The Americans think they're so superior, staying at their desks during lunch, eating low-cal treats out of brown bags. Big deal! One-handed working costs employers millions a year in lost time. What exactly is so wrong with intravenous drips, anyway? Why do you people have such a bigoted hatred of anything which smacks of progress? It’s as if the entire working class has some kind of phobia about needles. My advice: get over it! Shit happens, guys! At the very minimum, is it really too much to ask that people should take care of their dietary needs on their own time?

Not that the concept of "own time" is one to which we need to become over-wedded. For instance, have you ever thought how much much potentially productive time you lose travelling to work each day? I mean, sure, you can (and, I trust, do) use your laptop and your mobile phone and your pager to make a start on the bus on the way in. And of course, you have a computer at home, for evenings and weekends, and a palm top for when you're unavoidably

stuck at the theme park with the kids.

But really, when we get right down to it, what is it about this "home" thing that you guys are so hung up on? OK, yeah - family, leisure, rest, refreshment, blah blah blah. I put it to you, though - and this is just a suggestion - do you honestly, truly want to be doing all that stuff, when you could be doing something useful? Like selling insurance or making sports goods? Do you ... or is it just that you have got yourself stuck in some kind of Old Economy, dinosaur-shaped, collectivist mindset?

What I’m saying is, I don't see such a great difference between your bed at "home" and a conveniently situated, fully computer-ready park bench. That old idea about "home" and "work" being separate worlds - well, I’m sure it went down very well indeed in the Soviet Union. But, correct me if I’m wrong here, the Soviet Union went bust. Due to uncompetitive practices.

What I’m saying is: lunch hours? Give me a break!

Mat Coward is a freelance writer and editor. He has a website