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Fri, Jul 09, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Europeans facing longer hours, less vacation money

NEW REALITIES Chronic economic stagnation, plus competition from low-wage countries in the EU and in Asia, is forcing Germans and the French to work more


For Michael Stahl, a technician at a cordless telephone factory in the town of Bocholt, Germany, summer is usually a carefree season of long evenings in his garden and even longer vacations. His toughest choice is where to take his wife and three children on their annual camping trip: Italy and Croatia are on this year's itinerary.

Two weeks ago, however, Stahl got a rude jolt, when his union signed a contract with his employer, Siemens, to extend the workweek at the Bocholt plant to 40 hours from 35. Weekly pay remains the same. The new contract also scraps the annual bonuses every employee receives to help pay for vacations and Christmas expenses.

"I'll have to make do with less," Stahl said with a sigh. "Of course, the family will come off the worst."

Stahl, 42, began as a toolmaker's apprentice as a teenager, and now after nearly 27 years at Siemens, he feels he has no choice but to put in the extra time. Like millions of his countrymen, he is struggling to accept the stark new reality of life in a global economy: Germans are having to work longer hours.

And not just Germans. The French, who in 2000 trimmed their workweek to 35 hours in hopes of generating more jobs, are now talking about lengthening it again, worried that the shorter hours are hurting the economy.

In Britain, more than a fifth of the labor force, according to a 2002 study, works longer than the EU's mandated limit of 48 hours a week.

Europe's long siesta, it seems, has finally reached its limit -- a victim of chronic economic stagnation, deteriorating public finances and competition from low-wage countries in the enlarged EU and in Asia.

Most important, many Europeans now believe that shorter hours, once seen as a way of spreading work among more people, have done little to ease unemployment.

"We have created a leisure society, while the Americans have created a work society," said Klaus Zimmermann, the president of the German Institute for Economic Research in Berlin.

"But our model does not work anymore. We are in the process of rethinking it," he said.

From the 1970s until recently, Europe followed a philosophy of less-is-more when it came to labor, with the result that Europeans work an average of 10 percent fewer hours a year than Americans. Germans, with the lightest schedule, work about 18 percent fewer hours.

The job creation argument went hand in hand with the greater social premium that Europeans place on leisure.

In the land of the 4pm rush hour and the month-long summer holiday, it does really seem, as the cliche goes, that Europeans work to live, while Americans live to work.

Siemens, however, upset that conventional wisdom by threatening to move production of cordless and cellular phones to Hungary, where salaries are a fraction of those in Germany. That would have cost about 2,000 jobs in a country that, with a jobless rate of 10.3 percent, can ill afford it.

"It's about lowering labor costs," said Peter Gottal, a spokesman for Siemens, which is based in Munich.

"Where we are in a global competition, 35 hours are no longer feasible. We just need more hours," he said.

Siemens and its union insist that the contract is not a template for the rest of German industry, but it is being viewed that way. The company, one of Germany's largest employers, is negotiating wages at five other factories, and it may demand some of the same concessions, including different work hours, that it received in Bocholt.

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