False Work Rage
By Friedhelm Hengsbach, S.J.
[This article written in December 2003 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web, http://www.st-georgen.uni-frankfurt.de/nbi/pdf/Falsche_Arbeitswut.pdf.]
An attack of work rage has broken out among entrepreneurs and politicians. A tire manufacturer declares Germans should adjust to normal working hours of 43-45 hours per week. Angela Merkel thinks we will not maintain prosperity in our country without working one to two hours more per week. A final cry of alarm resounds in the demand to reintroduce all-day shopping Advent Sundays.
Some arguments that support the demand for longer working hours are fuzzier than Pumuckle's red hair. The 35-hour week drives entrepreneurs from Germany. They would be displaced from the world market as long as German workers hold to the shortest working hours, the most holidays and the longest annual vacations. More work without wage compensation lowers labor costs, increases growth, strengthens the economic upswing and reduces unemployment.
Intensified competitive pressure on individual businesses, branches and regions is inevitable in the international division of labor. Nevertheless longer working hours and drastic cuts in wages cannot resist the competition of low-wage countries. Most business of German firms abroad concentrates on developed industrial countries. Goods of similar standards and similar quality are exchanged with these countries.
Demand for goods, productivity and working hours are important determinants of employment. Increasing demand for goods does not automatically lead to more employment when it is caught by higher productivity and/or extended working hours. Conversely a reduction of working hours has no effect on employment when neutralized by an increased productivity in satisfying the present demand for goods. In the last 40 years, the increased productivity has allowed an increased work income and simultaneously a reduction in working hours. The amount of produced goods rose threefold while societal work volumes fell a fifth.
Do Germans work too little? "Germans" only exist as an idea. The paid work that is actually done exceeds the work agreed according to scale. Six to seven million persons capable of work whose working hours tend to zero face employed persons who are forced to overtime or voluntarily do extra work up to self-exploitation. The average socially useful weekly working hours of women and men are equal although their shares in paid work or family work are considerably different. As a rule, working hours and earned income of employed persons correspond to their productivity. Therefore unpaid extra work in the present economic situation is ridiculous and harmful. This extra work increases the number of the unemployed.
Renowned economists think the relatively high productivity of the German economy is a result of the "wage whip" induced by overly high wage demands. If these remain moderate, more workers could replace capital-intensive technology. Unemployment would decline. However the production factors labor and technology are not mutually exchangeable but are coupled to one another. Still it sounds contradictory when a society that declares work capacity as the most precious economic resource devalues the powers of its workers through poor training and low pay.