The Citizens Handbook

We need to spend less time at work

Buzz Hargrove

The following article focuses on Canadians, but applies equally to people in other places. Lack of time is the greatest barrier to citizen involvement, and the largest obstacle to creating a robust civil society. - CD

Canadians talk a lot about reducing their work-time, and they should. An overall reduction in work-time would lower unemployment, reduce record levels of on-the-job stress, and ease the increasing difficulty of workers trying to cope with the demands of work and family. Unfortunately, all the talk about excessive workloads has not generated the broad-based action needed to reduce work-time in this country.

In sharp contrast, when we look at Europe, we see workers enjoying a wildly popular 35-hour work-week, month-long summer shutdowns, more public holidays, and strong early retirement programs.

So it was with considerable disappointment that I read about the recent loosening of France's 35-hour week. Despite more than 70% public support in the polls for keeping work hours the way they were, the Chirac government has allowed some local negotiations on how the work-time laws are implemented. Recent amendments to German labour standard laws also allow a return to the 40-hour week in some industries. The European business elites and right-wing commentators have been crowing in triumph. They have claimed for years that Europe's shorter work week is a drag on the economy.

Despite these setbacks, however, the vast majority of workers in Europe still have significantly shorter work schedules than do their American and Canadian counterparts. Our workers may get 20% more pay, but are they better off when they have to work 20% more hours? Hardly.

In a recent study, MIT economist Oliver Blanchard found that, over their entire working lives, Americans put in an average of 40% more time on the job than do Europeans. (Comparable Canadian work-life statistics are not available, but it's reasonable to assume they would be similar.) Other studies have confirmed that, although they work less, European workers are just as productive as Americans when output per hour is considered.

Compared to Europeans, Canadians too work longer hours, have fewer vacations, fewer public holidays, put in more overtime, work more hours late at night and on weekends, have less time with their families, and retire later. In fact, Canadians work some of the longest hours in the industrialized world. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Canadians work almost seven weeks more per year than do French and German workers.

That doesn't necessarily mean that Europeans work fewer hours per week. Rather, they enjoy typical vacation entitlements of five weeks, plus an average of 11 public holidays a year. That means most European workers have about seven weeks of paid time off per year, double our minimum standards.

Nor do Europeans work the amount of overtime Canadian workers do.
Every week in Canada, 20% of workers put in nine hours of overtime. When we add this up, that's enough hours to create another 566,000 full-time jobs, which would lower our national unemployment rate to less than 4%.

A few small forward steps have been taken in Canada in recent years, particularly around extending parental leave and granting limited family-emergency leave. And Quebec has also reduced hours and provided parental leave for the self-employed. But these are fairly modest gains, and they've been offset by several backward steps, including the abolition of mandatory retirement at 65 in Ontario and other provinces. Currently, the federal labour code covering work-time is under review, and we can only hope that federal officials will look to Europe for inspiration.

In the labour movement, we bargain as best we can to reduce working time, but it will take governments and a broader movement to extend these gains beyond the ranks of organized labour. Again, a look at the European experience shows there is no shortage of ideas.

In provinces where it doesn't already exist, a third week of vacation could be legislated, as could a fourth. Public holidays could be increased, particularly in provinces that now lag behind.

We can also tackle the challenge of excessive overtime. New forms of education, family, and sabbatical leaves can be supported, such as two weeks' compulsory education/training leave. And we should be thinking about how to get people to retire earlier, opening up new opportunities for youth.

Many other countries have already found ways to allow their citizens to work less. We need to make a greater effort to follow their example.

"Compared to Europeans, Canadians work longer hours, have fewer vacations, fewer public holidays, put in more overtime, work more hours late at night and on weekends, have less time with their families, and retire later."

Buzz Hargrove is the National President of the Canadian Auto Workers

This article was originally published in the October 2005 issue of the Monitor, a publication of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The Centre provides a large number of first-rate articles on its website.

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