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    Essential Information on an Essential Issue

    Letter No.153

    3 October, 2001

  • andershayden.jpg - 35079 BytesREVIEW
    Sharing the Work, Sparing the Planet
    by Anders Hayden
    Work Time, Consumption & Ecology

    American workers are continuing to put in the longest hours in the industrialised world — spending nearly one week more on the job per year than they did a decade ago.

    An International Labour Organisation (ILO) study shows the average American worked 1,978 hours in the year 2000, up from 1,942 hours in 1990. The report also shows that the average Australian, Canadian, Japanese and Mexican worker puts in about 100 hours (or about two and a half weeks) less work than the average American. The British and Brazilians work about 250 hours (over five weeks) less per year while Germans work nearly 500 hours (about 12.5 weeks) less than Americans.

    (Workers in South Korea and the Czech Republic spend considerably longer at their jobs than Americans, but the ILO does not include these nations in its list of "industrialised countries").

  • Statistics NZ reports that New Zealanders, on average, worked 1,835 annual hours in the year 2000, up 15 hours from the 1,820 annual hours in 1990.

    iloannualhrs.jpg - 42408 Bytes

  • All these long hours do not mean that American workers are the most productive. The ILO report shows that the United States is No.1 in the world in terms of productivity per worker. But partly because of the comparatively high number of hours Americans work, the report finds that France and Belgium edge out the US in terms of productivity per hour.

    The figures: French workers produce an average of $US33.71 of value added per hour, compared with $32.98 in Belgium and $32.84 in the US.

  • Americans typically get only two or three weeks holiday a year, while Europeans will take four to six weeks holiday. Besides having shorter holidays, Juliet Shor, author of the ground-breaking book "The Overworked American", comments that a major reason for the longer working year in the US is that American worker seems to be getting squeezed in both the boom times, and the busts.

    Shor: "All the direction seems to be for longer hours. In expansions, companies keep giving more work to their workers, and in recessions, there will be downsizing and fewer people working, but the workers who remain will have to work longer hours to retain their jobs…"

    The working hours and productivity figures are part of a new international study, entitled "Key Indicators of the Labour market 2001-2002" (KILM) which the ILO will be releasing at a special Global Employment Forum to be held in Geneva on 1-3 November 2001. The Forum will bring together key players from international institutions, government , business, trade unions, and "civil society" to discuss a new global employment agenda — one that will focus as much on issues of "overwork" and "underemployment" as much as it does on traditional measures for job creation.

    Observers say that the KILM report will be a significant contribution to these discussions because it breaks new ground by focusing on a broad, comprehensive set of global indicators to analyse labour markets, rather than just study one indicator such as unemployment. (The wider indicators include: labour force participation, employment by sector and status, informal sector employment, unemployment, underemployment, hours worked, wages and earnings, labour productivity, and poverty.) For more information on the KILM report, contact the ILO website at

  • In preparing for the Global Employment Forum, the ILO estimates the global labour force at nearly three billion, or roughly half the world's population. There are some 160 million people unemployed, with 66 million or 41% of these people young people. In addition to this, the ILO estimates there are 500 million "working poor" who are unable to earn more than $US1 per day.

    Over the next decade, the world's labour force is expected to grow by another 500 million people ... an expansion which the ILO argues could be both an opportunity and a challenge. The ILO : "The productive contribution of these men and women has the potential to spur growth and prosperity throughout the world. The ILO is convinced this promise can only be realised if employment becomes the central focus of economic and social policies at regional, national and international levels. Otherwise, the risk is that many of the new entrants will join the unemployed and working poor…"

    Sources — "Key Indicators of the Labour Market 2001-2002" (KILM) report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) due for release in November 2001; press releases from "New ILO Study Shows Us Workers Put In Longest Hours"; New York Times 1 September 2001 "Long hours — it's the American Way"; Guardian Weekly 6 September 2001 "US workers suffer labour pains as they put in record hours at work" by Michael Ellison; Reuters 1 September 2001 "Bush a role model for champions of more time off"; Statistics NZ Labour Market Statistics 2000 Table 7.15 "Annual Hours of Work";

    Americans may be working longer hours, but many workers in Australia (and New Zealand) have just as much cause for concern about overwork and fatigue. A new study released last month by the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) show that one in five Australian workers are working more than 50 hours a week, and that "unreasonable" working hours are damaging family and community life. Overworked Australians are reporting their lives have no friendships and hobbies, they have no time for sport, and have little intimacy with their partners.

    The study, called Fifty Families, was undertaken by researchers at the Universities of Sydney and Adelaide. It looked at workers and their families who experience "unreasonable" working hours. These include very long hours, changes in time zones, irregular shift work, unpredictable hours or combinations of these.

  • ACTU President Sharan Burrow says that family life is breaking down in Australia because of the increasing pressure to work longer and unpredictable hours. She says the study shows the lack of control and the low level of negotiating rights employees have over hours of work. Many employees reported that they were not even paid for their extra work.

    Burrow reports that the trade union movement is putting "hours of work" and "fatigue" on the political agenda. While workplaces over the last decade have been deregulated and restructured, often many times, to enhance management "flexibility" … she says it has been harder for trade unions to have an influence on these important health and safety issues.

    — The Fifty Families report can be downloaded in PDF format from the ACTU website at

    Sources — Sydney Morning Herald 5 September 2001 "A nation of work, stress and no play" by Adele Horin and Vanessa Wilson; ACTU website; Fifty Families report; National Forum on Hours of Work and Fatigue Sydney 20 September 2001.

    It's been twenty months since the introduction of the 35-hr working week in France, and the indications are that the shorter week has become extremely popular. L'Express reports that 68% of the French workforce say that the change in working hours is improving their quality of life.

    The new working hours were introduced in January last year when all French firms with more than 20 employees were required to renegotiate their labour contracts. In exchange for the 35-hr week, the workers have generally been willing to accept a more flexible allocation of their work time, along with some wage restraint. The government has given businesses incentives to employ new low-wage workers by subsidising the social payments paid by employers (to contribute to superannuation, healthcare, accident compensation and unemployment benefits).

    The results have been impressive: unemployment in France has fallen from 13% in 1997, to a 9% this year. The French Employment Minister Elizabeth Guigou reports that the year 2000 was the best in terms of job creation for a century. While strong economic growth has created the majority of these new jobs, the Jospin government attributes about one fifth of the improvement directly to the 35-hr week measures.

  • The five million workers (who have been affected so far by this legislation) have an average of fifteen more days off a year. Media reports say that the traffic in Paris thins out dramatically on Wednesdays, when many working mothers are choosing to spend a day off with their children. Friday afternoons are becoming a time for household chores so that "le weekend" can more fully be spent on leisure pursuits. Do-it-yourself stores and travel agents have all reported an upsurge in business. There's been a boom in shopping, which is helping to sustain historically high levels of consumer confidence.

  • Although it is referred to as a 35-hr week, in reality the French have a 1,600 hours a year law — the legislation sets the weekly time as simply an average across the year. This has introduced a level of flexibility into French working life, which economists say is also increasing productivity.

    Examples: Samsonite workers, who manufacture luggage, have agreed to work 42 hours a week in the summer, when the demand for luggage is high, in exchange for 32 hours a week in the Winter. At Carrefour, the French retail giant, cashiers have agreed to adjust their duties and work times in accordance to the number of customers in the store.

  • The 35-hr week may be a boon for most French workers, but not in those sectors already burdened with skills shortages. The Guardian reports that French hospitals are being put under further strain as the French government tries to impose its 35-hr law on an already over-stretched medical staff.

    French health unions say that the promise of recruiting an extra 40,000 new nurses to plug the holes left by the shorter week cannot be fulfilled … and warns that the situation will lead to healthcare chaos. French hospitals are already short of 10-15,000 staff, mainly nurses. A public hospital administrator in Paris told the Guardian: "My staff routinely work extra hours every week, and never take time off in lieu. We can't even operate a 39-hr week as we are supposed to. Talk of a 35-hr week is fantasy…"

    Sources — Centre on the United States and France Analysis January 2001 "France's 35-hr work week — flexibility through regulation"; Guardian Weekly 2 April 2001 "Le weekend gets longer and longer"; Christian Science Monitor 16 April 2001 "French workers formula for not getting fried" by Keren Lentschner; Guardian Weekly 13 September 2001 "35-hr week risks French health chaos"

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