The ETUI held a Monthly Forum on 22 February to mark the recent publication of a guide on ‘The why and how of working time reduction’. The topic has been back in the spotlight recently due to an initiative of IG Metall, Germany’s biggest trade union.

Written by ETUI senior researchers Stan De Spiegelaere and Agnieszka Piasna, the guide traces out the discussion on working time reduction by examining the recent trends, the different reasons for implementing such a reduction, and the ways in which it can be organised. Although there has been a decline in working hours over the course of the twentieth century, the distribution of this reduction has not been uniform, across the population in general but also particularly in terms of gender. Furthermore, in most cases the reduction has been driven by employers’ strategies and has taken the form of (sometimes involuntary) part-time work.

According to the researchers, one in three employees in the EU wants to work less. But how should this best be organised? The guide provides an insight into the many different schemes that have been implemented in the past or are currently underway. The three examples which the authors chose to present at this event were the President’s Reemployment Agreement, an initiative of US President Roosevelt, the 6+6 scheme introduced in Finland, and the system of working time reduction currently in place at the Flemish public broadcasting company VRT. Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution for working time reduction, the researchers conclude that “doing nothing is leading to social- and gender-biased distribution”.

The recent ‘Mein Leben, meine Zeit’ (‘My life, my time’) campaign by IG Metall was launched with the aim of regaining collective and individual control over working time, as well as increasing gender equality and improving health and safety at work. The survey which the German union carried out with employees at the start of the campaign showed clearly that it was not the collective reduction of working time that was perceived as important but rather the right to return to full-time work after a reduction in working hours. In the end, the negotiators achieved the right to a reduction of working time down to 80% for a two-year period, but without wage compensation. Employees will also be able to change their bonus to eight days extra leave, two of which will be paid by the employer. According to De Spiegelaere, although not all the demands have been accepted, this campaign has been very important because it has put this issue back on the table after a very long time of being off it. Furthermore, the fact that IG Metall did not drop the working time demands in exchange for higher wages can serve as an example for other European trade unions.

Richard Pond, from the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), which supported the project leading to this ETUI publication, said that EPSU wanted to look further into the question of working time reduction because it has always been a difficult topic for the public service unions due to the complicated issue of productivity in many of their sectors. Another problem is that in many countries, such as Greece and Spain, working time actually increased across the whole public sector during the crisis. In other countries such as Germany and the UK there are major staff shortages, which makes it very difficult to implement any working time reduction agreements. In the Nordic countries, on the other hand, the discussion has focused on gender equality. Pond concluded by emphasising that it is “simply not an option for many workers to have shorter working hours if there is also a reduction in pay, especially in Eastern Europe”.