Reducing working hours in the European Union

The present long hours of work in western countries harm employees, and employers are, by definition, responsible. These proposals are intended to reduce the harm: they are not country-specific, and could be adopted for the whole European Union.

1. Every employer shall maintain a place of rest in the vicinity of the actual point of work. The employer may do this in co-operation with other employers, and/or local government. If the work is normally done indoors, the place of rest may be a garden or park, provided sufficient shelter from bad weather is provided.

2. After two hours of work, the employer shall allow a work-free period of 30 minutes, at the place of rest if the employee so chooses. The time taken to reach the place of rest from the actual point of work, shall count as working time.

3. After four hours of work, the employer shall allow a work-free period of 60 minutes, to allow the employee to eat, at a location suitable for that purpose. The time taken to reach that location from the actual point of work, shall count as working time. That location may be combined with the place of rest, provided its function as a resting place is not affected.

4. After 6 hours of work, the employer shall allow a work-free period of not less than 12 consecutive hours.

5. After 18 hours of work, the employer shall allow a work-free period of not less than 48 consecutive hours.

6. In every calendar month, the work-free periods shall be extended to allow the employee at least three work-free periods of at least 72 consecutive hours, separated by no less than five full calendar days.

7. In each calendar quarter, at least one work-free period shall be extended, to include at least six full calendar days.

Of course there are many possible alternatives, but this system allows some flexibility, while reducing the average working week to about 15 hours. That is probably the maximum which is psychologically sustainable. Some exemptions will be needed for health care and emergency services, for instance, and for work which can not be interrupted. They should be kept to a minimum, however, and the employee compensated with extended free time later.

The economic consequences are not as drastic as might be expected. Loss of employees can be compensated, in the first instance, by more people entering the labour market. Some productivity gain can also be expected, as employee stress falls. More importantly, real under-employment (presenteeism) should fall, and there is a major incentive to improve productivity by technological innovations. Some jobs, in fact some sectors of the economy, could disappear entirely, without any noticeable drop in real welfare.

Drastic cuts in working hours have been proposed before, but without any political impact. There is certainly no reason, for people to work ever harder and ever longer: the technological trend is in the opposite direction. Work has become a political cult, and for that reason shorter working hours are more a political than an economic issue.

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