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Business

Netherlands Debates Longer Work Week

As the discussions on returning to a 40-hour work week continue unabated in Germany and France, the Netherlands, which introduced shorter work weeks in the 1980s, is also pondering a return to eight hour days.

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Increasing the hours in the work week in Europe

"It is the hot topic of this summer," Agnes Jongerius, vice-chairman of the Netherlands' largest labor union, FNV, told the AFP newsagency.

Following politicians and business leaders in Germany and France, who set off a heated debate in their countries by urging a return to the 40-hour work week as a means to improving economic competitiveness, Dutch Economic Affairs Minister Laurens Jan Brinkhorst entered a similar fray in his country.

"A normal work week of 40 hours should be the norm," he said in late July.

According to a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the Netherlands has the lowest number of hours per worker: on average each Dutch employee puts in 1,340 hours yearly. This figure is largely explained by the fact that 33 percent of the population works part-time.

Improving competitiveness

In a "letter on economic growth" outlining his plans for supporting the Dutch economy, Brinkhorst advocated the return of the 40-hour work week for civil servants and government officials, saying it would prevent the loss of jobs to more competitive markets in Asia and Eastern Europe. He also called for the opening of collective bargaining agreements and the liberalizing of dismissal protection laws, which make it virtually impossible for employers to fire people.

Brinkhorst's suggestions are right in keeping with the tone set across the border in Germany, where similar plans are being crafted by the Federal Employer's Association and opposition politicians. And as in Germany, Dutch labor unions are protesting the proposed changes.

Polder model falters

Ton Heerts, a senior official with FNV, was quoted by Radio Nederlands as saying he feared a rolling back of the so-called "Polder Model" of consensus decision-making between the government, employers and unions on labor issues. The model, which has been in existence since 1982, lowered the work week to 38 hours, and in 1994 to 36 hours for several sectors.

If recent events in the business world are any indication, the Polder Model may soon be a thing of the past. This week the chairman of ABN Amro, the Netherlands largest bank, echoed the minister in calling for a return to the 40-hour work week for the bank's 20,000 employees. Dutch electronics and appliance giant Philips has also indicated an interest in putting the increased work week on the table for upcoming contract negotiations.

In another sign that the Polder Model could be breaking up, Dutch office furniture manufacturer Smead Europe announced in mid-July that it would impose the 40-hour work week without additional pay in two of its three Dutch factories. Although the unions took Smead to court and won last Friday when the judge ruled the conditions of the collective agreement could not be violated, the road has been paved for other companies to try the same.

35 Stunde Woche Ade, Arbeitszeit

In Germany, the unions protest the introduction of 40-hour plus work weeks, favoring keeping the current 35 in the manufacturing sector.

"The 40-hour week is not the answer for an economy which is lagging behind. Instead of working more we should be working smarter," Jogerius of the trade union FNV said.

A European trend?

Philippe de Buck, secretary general of Unice, the umbrella organization of European Employer Associations, told Radio Nederlands that what is needed is a better balance between the rights and benefits acquired over time by the working population and today's economic reality. The "European model" with all its rights and benefits for workers is no longer able to cope with all the modern problems of globalization, de Buck said.

"We should be grateful to those business which have made agreements about flexible working conditions," he said, referring to businesses who offer to not move abroad in exchange for lower pay or longer working hours. "It's a constructive approach for everyone: the business itself, the region where it's based, and the people who work there."

Ton Heerts from FNV said there's still room for improvement. "When there's an urgent situation, trade union leaders in the Netherlands, France and Germany are concerned enough to help find a solution."

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