Debate on working time: What workers want

In July 1997, Dieter Schulte, chair of Germany's DGB union confederation, called the 25-hour working week a "concrete utopia" and thus made the reduction of the weekly working hours to 25 hours an issue in the working time debate. However, a representative survey published in August 1997 indicates that just 33% of all employees in Germany and 19% of full-time employees wish to work fewer than 35 hours per week.

The debate on working time

During the 1980s, the reduction of working time was one of the top priorities of trade unions' collective bargaining policy. In 1984, the Industriegewerkschaft Metall (IG Metall) metalworkers' trade union reached an agreement on a step-by-step reduction of the working week from 40 to 35 hours. The 35-hour week was finally introduced in the metalworking industry in 1995. However, collectively agreed working hours still vary considerably across sectors (DE9704208F), and even more so when considering actual working hours including overtime. According to the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Order (Bundesministerium für Arbeit und Sozialordnung), collectively agreed regular weekly working hours in western Germany decreased from 40.0 in 1994 to 37.4 in 1996. For eastern Germany, the average weekly working hours decreased from 40.2 in 1991 to 39.4 in 1996 ("Tarifvertragliche Arbeitsbedingungen im Jahre 1996", Bundesministerium für Arbeit und Sozialordnung, Bonn (1997))

Although, in the view of some commentators, many theoretical and empirical analyses indicate that the employment effects of reductions of weekly working hours are only small, German trade unions still favour such a strategy for reducing unemployment. In April 1997, Klaus Zwickel, chair of IG Metall, proposed a general reduction of working time to 32 hours per week and the introduction of a four-day week for every employee from 1999. This proposal was rejected by the German employers and their associations, and stirred controversial discussions among trade union officials. The Christian metalworkers' union, Christliche Gewerkschaft Metall (CGM) - a member of the Christian Trade Union Federation Of Germany (Christlicher Gewerkschaftsbund, CGB) which in 1995 represented more than 300,000 employees, and is an exception to the principle of unified trade unions that are organised in the German Trade Union Confederation (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, DGB) - called the IG Metall proposals an error and demanded more flexible working time arrangements and working time accounts. Dieter Schulte, the DGB chair, declared the 32-hour working week an "avant-garde aim" (DE9704208F).

Recent trade union demands

At the beginning of July 1997, Mr Zwickel renewed his demands for a 32-hour working week. In order to implement collectively agreed reductions in weekly working hours and thus to create jobs, he proposed either compulsory works agreements, differentiated partial pay compensation, wage subsidies or reductions in social security contributions, paid for by the Federal Employment Service (Bundesanstalt für Arbeit), or a mix of these measures.

At the end of July 1997, the DGB chair, Mr Schulte, called the 25-hour working week a "concrete utopia" and thus made the reduction of weekly hours to 25 an issue in the working time debate. Furthermore, he pleaded for flexible reductions of the working week and menus of choices.

This demand was rejected by the employers and their associations. The German Association of Chambers of Commerce (Deutscher Industrie- und Handelstag, DIHT) and the Christian Democratic and Christian Social (CDU/CSU) parliamentary group's spokespersons responsible for small and medium-sized enterprises (Mittelstand) demanded the extension of the working week to 40 hours.

The IW survey: What workers want

In July 1997, the Cologne-based Institut der deutschen Wirtschaft (IW) conducted a representative opinion poll on working time preferences and reductions in weekly working hours among 1,074 eastern and western German employees covered by collective bargaining ("Arbeitszeit und Arbeitszeitverkürzung: Wünsche, Erfahrungen und Auswirkungen im Spiegel einer Arbeitnehmerbefragung", Claus Schnabel, in iw-trends 3/97).

Asked for their preferred weekly working time - given that labour income changes proportionally with the working time variation - just 33% of all employees and 19% of full-time employees wish to work fewer than 35 hours per week (see Table 1 below). A further third of all employees surveyed would like to work more than 40 hours per week. Half of all eastern German employees, but only one-third of the western employees, prefer to work 40 hours or more. This difference might result from differing income situations which makes an increase of labour income by working more hours more attractive. Interestingly, the preference among trade union members to work less than 35 hours is below average.

Table 1. How long workers want to work in 1997, given that labour income changes proportionally with working time variation (% of employees questioned)
Preferred weekly working time (in hours) All Western Germans Eastern Germans Male Female Trade union members
Under 10 7.3 7.8 5.3 5.8 8.9 4.3
10 < 25 9.5 10.8 4.6 2.5 17.2 4.6
25 < 35 16.5 17.2 14.0 8.5 25.4 14.1
35 < 38 17.0 18.1 13.0 19.5 14.2 24.1
38 < 40 13.7 13.9 13.0 13.1 14.4 17.8
40 < 45 25.5 22.8 35.7 34.6 15.6 24.8
45 < 50 3.7 2.7 7.3 5.7 1.5 3.6
50 and more 6.8 6.8 7.0 10.4 2.8 6.7

Source: Schnabel (1997).

For roughly 40% of all employees, the preferred working time corresponds with the weekly working hours fixed in current collective agreements, as Table 2 below indicates

Table 2. Preferred and collectively agreed working time
% of employees whose preferred weekly working time ... All Western Germans Eastern Germans Male Female Trade union members
... conforms with the collectively agreed working hours 39.7 38.7 43.4 34.9 41.6 42.5
... is higher than the collectively agreed working hours 27.4 28.8 22.5 34.4 19.7 27.6
... is below the collectively agreed working hours 32.9 32.5 34.1 30.7 35.3 29.9

Source: Schnabel (1997)

Besides rationalisation, economic theory suggests three potential, not necessarily mutually exclusive, reactions of companies to reductions in weekly working hours:

  1. doing the same amount of work in less time increases labour productivity and may compensate for the costs of the reduction in hours. However, this may lead to increased work stress;
  2. increasing overtime worked by existing employees, especially in cases when hiring new workers seems impossible or too risky, due to labour shortages or labour law provisions respectively; and
  3. job creation.

A further argument frequently mentioned in the working time debate is that the reduction of weekly hours is said to increase job security. All four arguments were covered by the poll - see Table 3 below.

Table 3. Personal experiences with collectively agreed working time reduction (% of employees questioned)
. All Western Germans Eastern Germans Male Female Trade union members
Increased work stress 52.9 56.3 35.0 56.2 47.6 63.5
Additional overtime 52.6 54.8 40.9 52.5 52.6 54.5
Creation of new jobs 13.0 12.4 15.8 14.4 10.7 13.1
Increased job security 19.7 18.8 24.3 19.8 19.4 21.3

Source: Schnabel (1997)

Around 53% of employees surveyed complain that previous reductions of working hours have increased work stress and overtime work. Job creations and increases in job security due to working time reductions can only be confirmed by 13% and 20% of employees respectively. The results imply that a reduction in weekly working hours mainly affects current employees, especially in terms of increased work stress. Furthermore, the hoped-for positive effects on job creation and job security are very small.


The findings of the survey show that German employees are very sceptical about the possibilities and impact of working time reductions. Moreover, a further collectively agreed general reduction in weekly working hours, as demanded by many German trade union officials, does not conform with the preferences of the vast majority of employees and trade union members.

The results of the study are confirmed by the current quarrel within the public sector union, Gewerkschaft Öffentliche Dienste, Transport und Verkehr (ÖTV) on future working time policies. The ÖTV rank and file strongly oppose the plans of ÖTV officials to reduce weekly working hours further, unless there is full wage compensation.

Therefore, in order to overcome Germany's massive employment problems, defensive reductions of working hours should be replaced by offensive strategies for increasing labour market flexibility and stimulating economic growth. (Stefan Zagelmeyer, IW)

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