Sat, Dec 30, 2017 - Page 10 News List

German union seeks 28-hour week


Germany’s largest union is bracing for a combative start to the new year as it presses demands for a 28-hour working week, warning employers to expect mass strikes in the battle for a better work-life balance.

The mighty IG Metall union, which represents about 3.9 million workers in the metal and electrical industries, said it is ready to flex its muscles after initial negotiations with employers made little headway. An agreed no-strike period ends tomorrow.

IG Metall chairman Joerg Hofmann has told employers to expect brief “warning strikes” from Jan. 8.

More widespread action could follow, he said.

“If by the end of next month the employers have not changed their stance, we will consider resorting to 24-hour strikes or calling a vote for a general strike,” Hofmann told reporters this week.

Seeing its bargaining power strengthened at a time of bulging order books and record-low employment in Europe’s top economy, the union is pushing for a 6 percent wage increase. The Gesamtmetall employers’ federation has so far offered 2 percent, setting the stage for both sides to meet somewhere in the middle.

Far more controversial is IG Metall’s call for employees to be allowed to switch to a 28-hour week for a two-year period — with limited effect on wages.

That demand has been met with fierce resistance from company bosses and stirred wider debate about quality of life and the future of work in booming Germany.

In certain circumstances, IG Metall said reduced working hours must not go hand-in-hand with a drastic salary cut — for instance when staff are caring for young children or ailing relatives.

In those cases, the union wants employers to top up workers’ salaries to help make up for the shortfall that comes with clocking fewer hours.

It also wants employees to be guaranteed a return to a 35-hour week after two years.

“I think IG Metall’s proposal is very modern,” professor Gustav Horn of the Hans-Boeckler Foundation think tank told the Nordwest Zeitung daily.

It would inevitably lead to higher costs that would hurt the bottom line, but could also be a way for firms to hold onto their best workers, Horn said.

“In future, well-qualified employees will select those companies that offer flexible hours that suit their lives at that time,” Horn said.

However, a shorter week would mainly hurt small and medium-sized companies, which could struggle to meet production targets, Berenberg Bank chief economist Holger Schmieding said.

“If it would be replicated throughout the economy, it could do serious damage,” Schmieding said, in a nod to IG Metall’s track record of paving the way for major changes to the work environment.

IG Metall, which represents the powerful auto and machine manufacturing sectors so crucial to Germany’s economic success, led the campaign for a 35-hour week in the 1990s.

However, this time it is pushing for a radical rethink on part-time work.

“The time has come for workers to demand more self-determination to adapt working hours to their personal situation,” Hofmann told reporters in October.

The trend for more flexible working hours in recent years had mainly benefitted bosses who got staff to work longer days, Hofmann said.

The Gesamtmetall employers’ federation has slammed IG Metall’s demand for less work at roughly the same pay as “too costly” and “unfair.”

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