France’s decision effectively abolishing its 35-hour workweek by allowing employers to increase working hours – and pay – marks a reversal of a decades-old trend. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, most European countries reduced working hours: Germany went from more than 40 to 38 per week, the UK from 40 to 37, Denmark from 39 to 37, and France from 40 to 35. Today, however, as Europeans struggle with high unemployment and stagnating living standards, they may have to work longer to cope with globalization.
The French actions follow changes in Germany, where some recent wage settlements resulted in longer working times. The difference between the two countries is that, in Germany, working times were increased without compensating pay increases.
Siemens was the forerunner, going from 35 to 40 hours per week. Bavaria’s government increased the workweek from 38.5 to 40 hours for older employees and to 42 hours for younger employees. When Daimler-Chrysler increased work hours from 35 to 40 hours in its research and development center, the dam broke and other bargaining agreements fell into line.
Germany primarily reacted to low-wage competition from ex-communist countries. Currently, the average wage of the ten countries that joined the EU in May 2004 is about one-seventh of the West German wage level, and the Chinese wage is one twenty-fifth.