IG Metall leader proposes a 32-hour week

At the "Employment Summit" organised by the DGB union confederation in April 1997, the president of the IG Metall metalworking union, Klaus Zwickel, proposed a general reduction of working time to 32 hours per week. The proposal led to a highly controversial debate on future working time policy. Employers sharply reject the proposal, claiming that Germany already has one of the shortest working weeks in the world.

On 8 and 9 April 1997 the Confederation of German Trade Unions (Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund, DGB) invited representatives from the trade unions, employers associations and main political parties to an "Employment summit". Just one year after the failure of the "Employment Alliance" (DE9702202F), DGB aimed to renew the debate among the social partners and politicians on how to create new employment in Germany. In January 1996 the social partners and the Government had signed a joint statement in which all parties agreed on the central aim of halving unemployment by 2000. Since then, unemployment figures have not improved at all. On the contrary, in March 1997 nearly 4.5 million people were officially registered as unemployed - the highest March figure since 1945.

The proposal for a 32-hour week

During the different workshops and panel discussions at the "Employment Summit" the social partners more or less repeated their already well known concepts of how to fight against unemployment. While the trade unions demanded a further reduction of working time and sought a more active industrial policy to improve the climate of innovation in Germany, the employers' associations emphasised very much the need to reduce labour costs and to create more flexibility in collective bargaining. However, the most spectacular proposal came from the president of the metalworkers' union, IG Metall, Klaus Zwickel. In his speech at the "Employment summit" Zwickel proposed a general reduction of working time to 32 hours per week and the introduction of a four-day week for every individual employee from 1999. At the moment, working time in the west German metalworking industry is 35 hours per week. This had been collectively agreed upon until the end of 1998.

As a part of his proposal on working time reduction, Mr Zwickel called for a "differentiated compensation of wages". This means that: on the one hand, workers with lower incomes should receive a higher proportion of wage compensation for the cut in hours; and, on the other, that the amount of wage compensation should depend on the employment effects of the working time reduction, with companies creating new employment paying a lower compensation rate. In Zwickel's view, the costs of a further reduction of weekly working time of three hours could be divided among three parties: one hour could be paid for by the employees, who would thus have to renounce full wage compensation; the second hour could be paid for by the employers; and the third hour could be paid for by the Federal Employment Service (Bundesanstalt für Arbeit) through wage subsidies.

Working time in Germany

During the 1980s, the reduction of working time was one of the top priorities of trade unions' collective bargaining policy. Traditionally, IG Metall was the forerunner in this development. In 1984, after a seven-week strike, IG Metall reached an agreement, phasing in a step-by-step reduction of weekly working time from 40 to 35 hours. The 35-hour week was finally introduced in the metalworking industry in 1995. However, working time in Germany still differs considerably from sector to sector, and only a few sectors so far have a 35-hour week. Average weekly working time in western Germany still stands at 37.5 hours, while average weekly working time in eastern Germany is still 39.4 hours. See table below for further details.

However, since the beginning of the 1990s, the speed of the reduction of working time has slow down. While between 1987 and 1991 annual working time was reduced by about 56 hours, the reduction between 1992 and 1996 was only 31 hours. In 1996, average annual working hours stood at 1,645.

Collectively agreed weekly working hours in Germany, 1996
Sector Western Germany Eastern Germany
Metalworking 35 38
Iron and steel 35 38
Printing 35 38
Paper processing 36 37
Wood processing 36 38
Textiles and clothing 37 40
Retail trade 37.5 39
Chemicals 37.5 40
Sweets and candies 38 39
Insurance 38 40
Public services 38.5 40
Construction 39 39
Banking 39 40
Hotels and restaurants 39 40
In total 37.5 39.4

Source: WSI collective agreements archives 1996

While the trade unions succeeded in obtaining a further reduction in working time during the 1980s, the employers achieved considerable progress towards more flexible working time organisation. In the meantime many collective agreements have "opening clauses" for company-specific working time arrangements. These opening clauses include, for example:

  • longer working time on a permanent basis for particular groups of employees (eg technicians);
  • a longer or even shorter weekly working time for particular groups of employees through the introduction of a "working time corridor" (as in the chemicals industry, where the corridor is between 35 and 40 hours per week)
  • an uneven distribution of working time which has to be equalised within a reference period of (usually) 12 months;
  • a limited reduction of working time without wage compensation to secure jobs; and
  • the introduction of individual working time accounts

The effects of working time reduction on employment in Germany are still heavily disputed. While the employers' associations argue that working time reductions had no positive effects on the labour market. the trade unions think that an important part of the creation of new employment in the second half of the 1980s was the result of working time reduction.

Controversial debate on working time policy

Klaus Zwickel's proposal for a 32-hour week has led to a highly controversial debate on the future of working time policy in Germany. The employers' associations immediately rejected the proposal as unacceptable. The metalworking employers' association, Gesamtmetall, declared a "massive resistance against any kind of general working time reduction". In the view of Gesamtmetall, it had been a mistake to introduce the 35-hour week, which is responsible for the fact that Germany has one of the shortest working weeks in the world. The introduction of a 32-hour week would lead to a further decrease in international competitiveness for the German metalworking industry, and would deter foreign companies from investing in Germany. Instead the employers demanded more flexibility in working time and proposed the introduction of a general working time corridor where individual companies could choose a working time of between 30 and 40 hours per week.

More sceptical commends on Zwickel's proposal also came from inside the trade unions. The president of the DGB, Dieter Schulte, declared that the 32-hour week is an "avant-garde aim". While some unions support the strategy of a general weekly working time reduction and now demand the introduction of the 35-hour week in further sectors, other unions like to focus on different methods of reducing working time, like the reduction of overtime, the increased use of part-time work and even more flexible working time arrangements. However, even Klaus Zwickel declared that the general reduction of weekly working time is just one element in improving the employment situation, which does not stand in opposition to further flexibility.

Commentary

While the creation of employment is today's key question for Germany's future development, all the political debates among the social partners and politicians so far seems to have had no practical results. On the contrary, unemployment figures are growing from year to year. With his proposal for a 32-hour week Klaus Zwickel, has now polarised the debate and again put the focus on the working time question. Whatever the outcome of this debate will be, it becomes clear that much more unconventional ideas are needed in order to solve the unemployment problem. (Thorsten Schulten, Institute for Economics and Social Science, WSI)

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