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Working to Live or Living to Work?

Kyle McKinnon (ktz)
January 29, 2006

After decades of reducing the work week, the trend seems to be reversing as employers demand more of workers to compete globally. But some say there could be negative side effects.

Has the 37-hour work outlived its time?Image: ZB - Fotoreport

"Our employees earn good money, so they can work as much as the rest of the world," announced Manfred Wennemer of German car parts manufacturer Continental AG.

In an interview with Die Welt newspaper the CEO justified his reason for extending the company's work week from 37.5 to 40 hours, a decision that sent ripples through the engineering sector and alerted labor leaders to what is likely to become a contentious debate in 2006.

Continental AG in Hannover
Continental factory in HannoverImage: AP

But just as the debate is kicking off, several experts are saying there might be two sides to the issue, and it's worth looking closer at the discussion. Does a longer work week automatically translate into more productivity and hence a more prospering economy or are there down sides to making employees spend more of their free time on the job for less pay?

Keeping the competitive edge

Continental is not alone in its move toward increasing the work week. At a growing number of companies, workers and their labor union representatives are conceding to a longer work week in hopes of keeping their jobs. That's a stark contrast to the boom times of the 1980s and early 90s when labor unions managed to convince major companies like Volkswagen to reduce the work week in turn for hiring more workers.

But now unions are beginning to lose their clout at the negotiating table, while pressure to compete with other parts of the world is greater than ever. Germany's high wages coupled with short working weeks is just not competitive any more, no matter how good the product is. For shareholders, it's the bottom line that counts and that usually means fewer employers, working more for less pay.

Tim Noonan, spokesman for the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in Brussels has witnessed this development. He has watched as, one after another, trade unions make concessions to employers in recent years.

"We don't think that is the way in which successful companies should be looking, they should be looking to provide their workers with a good income, a reasonable level of working hours and not trying to squeeze more and more work out of every last worker," he said.

Creating more jobs

Volkswagen Bilanz
Volkswagen reduced its work week in the early 90sImage: AP

Noonan maintains that it would be better in the long-run for companies to establish shorter work weeks, which in return helps create more jobs. This was a policy several unions adhered to in the 1990s, but has since fallen out of favor at the negotiating table. Noonan admits unions are facing an uphill fight against profits, but says there are some positive developments in Europe. In Scandinavia, for example, the trade unions have adapted to the demands of globalization without sacrificing their voice in labor policy.

Gehard Bosch, the vice president of the Institute for Work and Technology near Cologne, sees the northern European countries as a good model for Germany. They have gone a long way in cooperating with employers to implement modern business strategies and rely on new technology. And all that is paying off in terms of successful international corporations. At the same time, though, the unions have managed to keep the core of the welfare state.

Living to Work?

While the move toward a longer work week picks up momentum in Germany, many are wondering what ever became of the old adage that one should be "working to live, not living to work."

Siemens, eine Mitarbeiterin montiert Telefone
A female employee builds telephones at SiemensImage: dpa

Karen Shire, a sociologist who studies work life at the University of Duisburg-Essen, has argued against increasing hours on the job. "It's not socially desirable to have more than 40 hours a week at work," she said. "The more time you spend at work, the less time with family, the less time on cultural activities," she explained.

The discussion on extending the work week goes well beyond the obvious, Shire said. At the same time the work week lengthens, there is a declining birthrate. Women are working more and longer. It is becoming more difficult to have more than one child or even one at all. "That is not desirable from a social perspective," the sociologist explained.

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