Working Time and the Struggle for a Better Life

by Carina Altreiter, Franz Astleithner, and Theresa Fibich, University of Vienna, Austria

The struggle over working time is historically linked to the struggle of workers to limit the exploitation of their labor power. The eight-hour-day was the proclaimed demand of the labor movement, and until the 1980s most Western industrialized nations gradually reduced length of the work day and work week.

Since then, except for France, no significant advances can be observed, even though productivity has increased substantially. But the recent global economic crisis has put debates about the unequal distribution of work back on the agenda. Using Eurostat data, we discuss current working time developments in the European Union, and their relevance for challenging social inequalities.

Working time and inequality
On the one hand, some people in the EU work long hours, with 32% working longer than 10 hours per day more than once a month in 2010. Others work part-time (20% in 2014) or have no job at all (9.5% unemployed in August 2015). Intensification of work, physical and psychical damage and disease due to long working hours on the one side, and frustration and devaluation on the other side, are just some of the consequences of the polarization of working time that threaten the foundations of our society.

On the other hand, men and women continue to experience a persistently unequal distribution of working time. Firstly, working full-time and long hours is still a “man’s thing,” while more and more women work part-time. Even though men’s part-time rates increased to 8.8% by 2014 in most EU-28 countries, the average female part-time employment rate remains more than three times higher (32.5%). Secondly, women spent almost two hours per day more than men on unpaid work (e.g. housework and child care). These dynamics add up to multiple disadvantages for women, with reduced career prospects and pension entitlements, resulting in a higher risk of poverty at older ages.

Does reducing working time reduce social inequalities?
Changing the standard length of the work day would meet the needs of many employees: Research shows that more than 30% of employees in Europe would prefer to work less, while many part-time workers (10 million workers in 2014) would prefer to work more hours. Reducing standard working hours for all employees would reduce the gap between full-time and part-time workers, and could encourage a more equitable distribution of paid and unpaid work between men and women. Further, by reducing the number of underemployed workers, shortening the work week might increase the bargaining power of workers, perhaps helping to address rising income inequality.

However, reducing paid working time does not automatically yield positive redistributive effects. If working time reduction is to contribute to an emancipatory project, policies would need to consider challenges like intensification of work and the deregulation of industrial relations, along with programs to ensure the redistribution of unpaid work.

Direct all correspondence to Carina Altreiter carina.altreiter@univie.ac.at, Franz Astleithner franz.astleithner@univie.ac.at and Theresa Fibich theresa.fibich@univie.ac.at

, , Austria, Volume 6, Issue 2

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