The '4-day week' is in the headlines despite the continuing cost of living crisis. High inflation rates across Europe continue to erode workers' purchasing power as real wages continue to fall, despite recent collective bargaining successes and increases in statutory minimum wages.
Even in this difficult context, reducing working time remains high on the trade union agenda, especially as the volume and pace of work continues to increase due to the twin transition. However, this priority has to be seen in the context of wages and the protection of purchasing power.
Balancing working time, wages and purchasing power
The reality on the ground is very complex and varies greatly between sectors and regions in Europe. A recent study by the European Trade Union Institute in cooperation with industriAll Europe unravels this complex situation and shows that working time reduction is first and foremost a priority for those who can afford it. Unfortunately, many workers are forced to work overtime, especially as inflation erodes the purchasing power of their wages. Therefore, the main demands of trade unions across Europe continue to focus on wage increases so that workers are not forced to work overtime to make ends meet in times of record inflation. Demands for reductions in working time are always discussed in the context of wage compensation, with unions seeking a minimal trade-off between wages and time off, or, ideally, a reduction in working time with no change in wages.
Shorter working time through collective bargaining
Although the situation varies across Europe, the study shows that collectively agreed working time is lower than the statutory maximum in most countries, demonstrating that it pays for workers to be unionised and covered by a collective agreement. The study explains that while the basic working time standards are set at a maximum of 48 hours per week by the 2003 European Working Time Directive, collective agreements in all EU countries limit working time to a range between 35 and 40 hours. The benefit to workers of being covered by a collective agreement is also evident when it comes to paid annual leave, as workers tend to get more days off when they are covered by an agreement. This can be as much as 10 extra days in Germany, compared with an average of 5 extra days in Denmark, Italy and the Czech Republic. Our factsheet provides more information on the differences between countries and between manufacturing sectors.
Working time discrepancies across Europe
Another important finding of the study highlights the significant gap in working time between Western Europe and Central and Eastern Europe. Collectively agreed working time in the metal and chemical industries ranges from 35 to 38 hours in countries such as Germany, France, Spain or Denmark, compared with 40 hours in Croatia, Romania or Slovenia. The East-West divide is particularly evident when looking at trends in the actual working week (which is generally slightly longer than the agreed working week), which tends to be longest in Central and Eastern European countries. Our factsheet provides a more in-depth analysis of the situation.
Diverse approaches: beyond the 4-day week
Finally, the study shows the different approaches taken by trade unions to reducing working time. Despite the hype about the '4-day week', this is only one model of working time reduction. Depending on the sector, different issues have to be taken into account (such as the organisation of shift work), so most workers and their unions prefer to opt for a general reduction in weekly working time rather than a 4-day week. Another approach to working time reduction based on a lifelong perspective can be found in the Nordic countries. This approach considers workers' preferences, for example, in line with lifelong caring responsibilities, or linking working time reduction to part-time pensions and early retirement schemes.
Whatever the situation, trade unions formulate demands according to the needs of their members, so a one-size-fits-all model for all countries and sectors is counterproductive. Collective agreements at all levels, but especially at sectoral level, are therefore best placed to implement reduced working time arrangements.
Isabelle Barthès, Acting Joint General Secretary of industriAll Europe, said:
"Our communication series on working time aims to shed light on the controversy surrounding the '4-day week'. The results of the ETUI study carried out in cooperation with industriAll Europe show that the situation on the ground is complex, especially in manufacturing industries where it is mainly thanks to collective agreements that workers enjoy decent working hours.
”Despite the cost of living crisis, reducing working hours has never been more important than now, when the twin transition is leading to a constant intensification of work. The record profits of big business in the last two years of crisis have shown that there is enough money to increase wages and reduce working time to protect workers' wellbeing.“
ETUI Study Friday on my Mind - working time in the manufacturing sector