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Opinion: Flexibility is the Panacea for Work Week Woes

As German state premiers and opposition politicians call for reintroducing the 40-hour work week, trade unions and Chancellor Schröder's Social Democrats reject the notion. More flexibility could be a solution.

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For years,weekly working hours have been on a continual decline in Germany. In the metal and electrical industry, with more than 3 million employees the economy's biggest sector, for example, western Germany has had the 35-hour week for nearly ten years.

Now things are going in the other direction. The 40-hour week has been reintroduced for civil servants, and the remaining federal, state and municipal employees are also expected to work one and a half hours longer each week. In rare unanimity, the state premiers cancelled the applicable collective labor agreement last week. Opposition party leaders see it as a signal for the private sector too.

Times have gotten tougher for the German economy. And it's easy to foresee that they will become even tougher due to the growing globalization of the world economy. Germany must protect its ability to compete internationally, so roll up those sleeves and get to work. Don't just work more but work longer. And do it without compensation, that is, more work without more pay. The trade unions see this as a challenge to the current social situation and want to prevent working hours from being extended, even if they have to resort to strikes. That's the current status of the discussion.

Bypassing the real issues

Unfortunately, the debate misses the heart of the issue. It's a shame, since blanket solutions are hardly helpful to everyday operations. For one, the extended presence of civil servants in no way means that more work will be done. Nor would longer work hours result in the loss of 100,000 jobs, as the German trade union federation DGB fears.

In contrast, production is much more directly linked to working hours in the private sector. But there no one is demanding employers introduce an across-the-board extension of working hours. Instead, they are calling for more flexibility.

Shorter week was a failure

The fact is that shortening the work week to as little as 35 hours has been proven wrong, since work has not only become more scarce but also more expensive. First, companies reacted by rationalizing and automating production, then, by relocating work-intensive manufacturing to so-called low-wage countries. The result is that work has become increasingly more stressful, and less and less of it takes place in Germany.

Shortening work hours failed to prevent the rise in unemployment. Instead, it boosted automation and outsourcing. In broad areas of production, on assembly lines, for example, the development is irreversible -- even if work hours are extended without wage compensation. In the services industry unpaid overtime has long been the norm. But that's not a desirable model for the future.

Instead, when it comes to working hours a maximum of flexibility is necessary. The "breathing factory" is necessary. When order volume is high, people must work more. The additional work can be compensated by free time during slack periods. Working hours should reflect orders received. Such a model for the work week -- which is already being practiced in many places -- has a future.

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