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Business

Experts: Longer Work Week Already Reality

While Germans are debating whether to extend the work week to help the country's ailing economy, some experts say many employees already spend almost 40 hours on the job each week.

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Not that lazy after all?

When electronics giant Siemens and trade union representatives recently agreed to re-introduce the 40-hour work week at two German plants in return for a two-year job guarantee, some employers and conservative politicians hailed the deal as a way to secure jobs.

Union leaders meanwhile vehemently opposed the idea, saying that they had only agreed to the Siemens deal because the company, which had threatened to move 2,000 jobs to Hungary, agreed to invest in German factories.

Der stellvertretende IG-Metall Vorsitzenden Jürgen Peters

Jürgen Peters

Jürgen Peters (photo), the head of Germany's metal workers' union, IG Metall, said that a universal 40-hour work week would serve as the country's "biggest job destruction program since World War II" and denied reports that hundreds of German companies were trying to follow Siemens' lead.

But longer work weeks have been a topic during the current contract negotiations for 800,000 employees in the construction industry as well as 150,000 people employed by Germany's railway company, Deutsche Bahn.

Six million unemployed?

Peters added that unemployment figures would quickly rise should the work week be extended, leaving a total of six million Germans without jobs. Currently, about 4.3 million people are unemployed.

But experts from the federal agency that handles unemployment said the debate about an extended work week was futile as most Germans de facto work 40 hours. "We're not that bad," Eugen Spitznagel from the Federal Labor Agency's economic research institute, IAB, told Berliner Zeitung.

While Germany's average work week with 37.7 hours ranked among the shorter ones when compared to other EU countries, most people actually ended up working longer than contractually required, bumping the actual work week to 39.9 hours, Spitznagel said. That puts the country just below the average work week of the 15 old EU countries, which is exactly 40 hours.

Labor contracts already require Greeks, Poles and Hungarians to work 40 hours per week, while workers in France only have to spend 35 hours on the job.

A risk of deflation?

Other economic experts cautioned however that extending the work week could actually harm Germany's economy: The resulting lower hourly wages would dampen consumer spending and lead to decreasing prices. "Should the 40-hour work week become the norm here, we would face a risk of deflation," Peter Bofinger, a member of the government's economic advisory council, told Berliner Zeitung.

While some companies, such as carmaker BMW, said they planned to look at longer work weeks in certain sectors, others, including Deutsche Post, already have flexible contracts in place that allow work weeks with up to 48 hours. At Telekom, however, executives said a longer work week was the last thing they needed. "Our problem isn't that we have too much work to do, but rather too little, considering the number of employees," said the company's CEO, Kai-Uwe Ricke, adding that Telekom had recently lowered its average work week to 34 hours.

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