Extending the working week

13th April 2004, Comments 0 comments

Germany's struggle to emerge from a prolonged period of economic stagnation seems to be taking on almost legendary proportions. In the second and final part of a series looking at the nation's economic woes, Jean-Baptiste Piggin asks: are longer working hours the answer to the country's problems?

at the office

Germans face the prospects of a longer working week

Nine years after Germany pioneered the 35-hour working week, the nation is now debating whether to restore longer working hours as a way of healing its economic ills.

The emotive debate pits the big unions, which regard shorter hours as a way of spreading the available work further, against the 16 state governments which are struggling to improve public services on a fixed income.

The states have already renounced a labour agreement guaranteeing hundreds of thousands of public service employees a 38.5-hour week and said all might have to undertake 40 or even the 42 hours worked by elite-category civil servants who promise allegiance to the state.

Edmund Stoiber, the conservative Christian Social Union (CSU) premier of Bavaria, said Saturday the longer week, without additional pay, would set an example for private industry. Trade unions were outraged.

*quote1*Frank Teichmueller, a leading official of Germany's biggest industrial union, IG Metall, said in an interview with NDR radio: "Go and ask an ordinary dockyard worker whether he'll build more ships if he works five hours longer, or if it just means fewer employees at the dockyard."

At the same time, Michael Sommer, head of the DGB trade union federation, has threatened strikes if there are attempts to make people work longer in the public services.

Talk about the extending the work week comes about nine years after IG Metall mounted strikes that led to car and aircraft factories and other big plants reducing the working week to 35 hours.

Workers in other industries spend longer on the job: the average German's working week is 39.9 hours, says the Dublin-based European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The French have the shortest average in the EU at 38.3 hours.

Michael Sommer

Union chief Michael Sommer is threatening strikes

Both nations only count actual hours of work, not meal-times and breaks, and the figures reflect overtime hours, which are paid extra, as well as longer hours worked by the self-employed and executives.

Britain's average is 43.5 hours, but it is customary in that country to treat meal-times as part of the working hours.

Stoiber's proposal was backed Sunday by Angela Merkel, leader of the allied Christian Democratic Union (CDU). However the CDU's labour wing disagreed: its leader, Hermann-Josef Arentz, told WDR radio longer hours might make some jobs superfluous and lead to lay-offs.

In the state governments, where the size of the workforce and tasks are usually fixed in Byzantine agreements, longer hours may mean more tax forms can be stamped and more potholes in roads can be fixed.

But business leaders questioned this week whether the solution was so simple in private industry.

Diether Klingelnberg, president of the VDMA federation of engineering industries, said the flexibility to raise or lower hours in line with the work available was more important than the unit cost of labour.

"Even in communist China we enjoy more entrepreneurial freedom than in Germany," he said in remarks quoted by the daily Die Welt. "In Switzerland, pay is 30 percent higher than here, but one can manufacture 15 percent cheaper."

At a CSU meeting on Saturday, Siemens chief executive Heinrich von Pierer called for a 40-hour week and described a model agreement at the company's Osram light-bulb factory in Eichstaett, which breaks out of the usual rigid German collective labour contracts.

The Eichstaett working week can be anywhere between zero and 48
hours: in winter, when demand for light-bulbs is high, hours are long. In summer, the staff work shorter hours and have time to enjoy the fine weather, he said.

April 2004


Subject: German news, working hours

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