Germany's economy minister has sparked a debate by saying Germans should work more to help the economy. But his suggestion to cut the number of holidays has been rejected by the church, unions and even some economists.
Most German workers enjoy six weeks of annual paid vacation.
Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl once famously called Germany a "collective amusement park" because of the country's numerous public holidays and the generous paid vacation workers receive.
Now, as Europe's largest economy struggles with sluggish growth and surging unemployment, some politicians have begun to suggest Germans roll up their sleeves and work more to get the country back in shape. German Economy Minister Wolfgang Clement said this week the country could no longer afford to be such a worker’s paradise and that cutting public holidays would help spur economic growth by decreasing wage costs.
"We need to compete internationally. I'm not expecting wage costs like in China or Taiwan but wages must become more competitive," Clement said on Wednesday. “We have to ask ourselves whether we go on as usual or if we concentrate a bit more.”
The discussion has riled the churches and unions, but Clement’s timing could hardly have been better. As politicians in Berlin and much of the rest of the country go about work on Thursday, citizens in predominately Catholic states get to stay home for Corpus Christi. The holiday may be important to the Church, but whereas some German states have 13 public holidays a year, France has only 11 and Britain makes do with eight.
Too many holidays?
"When we compare the calendar of our public holidays with those of other states, then we really have something to worry about," Clement (photo) told the Stern magazine this week. "As far as vacation, public holidays and working hours are concerned, we are without doubt at our limit."
Clement said a number of public holidays in Germany, where unemployment has long hovered over ten percent, would fall on weekends next year, which in turn would have a positive impact on growth. "All of a sudden, economic analysts predict an increased growth of about 0.5 percent. Now that’s something to celebrate and think about!"
But not everyone is going along with Clement’s zeal. The financial expert of the Greens in parliament, Christine Scheel has called the discussion "nonsense." She pointed out that unemployment in states which celebrate more than the usual nine nationwide holidays was lower compared to states, where people work more.
Clement’s proposals have also been fiercely criticized by the Catholic Church. Cardinal Karl Lehmann said the religious holidays are much too important for one to be allowed to exploit them simply on the basis of economic growth. He also told the daily Saarbrücker Zeitung that holidays belonged to the people and shouldn’t be tampered with.
Longer working hours "poison for growth"
Germany’s powerful trade unions have also naturally reacted angrily to the minister’s suggestion that Germans should work longer hours. Klaus Zwickel, head of the IG Metall engineering union, said longer working hours were actually "poison for growth" and a surefire recipe for more unemployment. Clement’s comments about cutting down holidays are a particular anathema to the unions at a time when IG Metall is striking in eastern Germany to demand a shortening of their workweek to the 35 hours currently required of their colleagues in the west.
Some economic experts are also doubtful whether reducing the number of public holidays in Germany could solve its economic problems. Gustav Horn, economist at the Berlin-based DIW institute, told the Associated Press news agency that any benefits were likely to be “small" and that the economy would have to be running at full steam to reap extra growth from longer work hours.
However, Clement, who has insisted that he merely wants to "provide a thought-provoking stimulus" through the discussion, has received support from some quarters, including Dieter Phillip, the president of the German Trade Association and Norbert Walter, chief economist at Deutsche Bank. Michael Rogowski, the head of the Germany Industry Association, told the mass-circulation newspaper Bild extending working hours might provide the impetus the Germany economy needs.
“A nation won’t become richer when everyone continues to work less, like IG Metall wants to achieve with its strikes,” Rogowski said.