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Working life has changed radically over the past century, but working time largely has not
Working life has changed radically over the past century, but working time largely has not

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100 years of 8-hour working days

By Nils Brandsma

The International Labour Organization (ILO) met for the first time 100 years ago, and right at the top of the agenda for discussion for this new specialised UN agency was the 8-hour working day. This discussion subsequently resulted in the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention, which stated that ‘The working hours of persons employed in any public or private industrial undertaking or in any branch there of (…) shall not exceed eight in the day and forty-eight in the week.’ A century later and, despite radical technological change in almost every aspect of our lives, the 8-hour workday still largely defines working life throughout Europe.

John Maynard Keynes famously thought that, by now, the primary societal issue would be boredom, due to productivity increasing to a level where we would only need to work 15 hours per week. He was evidently wrong. Despite huge changes in technology and productivity, long working hours are still prevalent. In fact, according to Eurofound’s European Working Conditions Survey, at least 10% of workers in the EU work more than 48 hours per week.

Working time in the EU

Interactive graph and background data available here

Collective agreements and individual realities

Who works longest in Europe? On average, collectively agreed working time is 116 hours longer per year in the Member States that joined the EU after 2004 than in older Member States. This equates to almost three full working weeks. The largest difference between Member States in annual working time is between Estonia and France, with workers in Estonia on the job on average six full working weeks more than those in France. This is due to both the shorter weekly working time in France, as well as the amount of annual leave and public holidays accorded to French workers in comparison with those in Estonia.

These numbers are based on the collectively agreed annual working time and public holidays, which can differ from the actual working time. In reality, workers in 19 of the 29 countries in Europe analysed in Eurofound’s Working time in 2017-2018 report usually work more than 40 hours per week. The largest difference between collectively agreed hours and usually worked hours is found in the United Kingdom, where collectively bargained working time is among the shortest in the EU at 37 hours per week. However, when the usually worked hours are considered, the UK has the longest week in the EU, with 42 hours. This relates to the highly decentralised system for working time regulation, which is mainly between the individual and their employer. Statutory legislation plays little role in working time standards, and coverage by collective agreements is relatively low. 

Collectively agreed and usually worked hours

Interactive graph and background data available here

Another 100 years on the horizon?

Debates about a shorter working week are ongoing in Europe, most notably in Belgium and Czechia. There has been increased focus in the Belgian media about reducing weekly working time to 30 hours, with the idea gaining support from trade unions, but causing concern from employers’ associations. Trade unions in Czechia are also pushing for reduced weekly working hours, with the Czech-Moravian Confederation of Trade Unions proposing a reduction of the working week from 40 to 37.5 hours. Although the Czech Prime Minister did not exclude the possibility, he stated that it was not on the current political agenda.

Collective bargaining can ultimately push working time in either direction. For example, in 2018 the Greek Panhellenic Federation of Local Government Employees agreed on reducing the working time for employees in waste management, inspection and transportation; drainage and water supply; maintenance; and construction to 32 hours per week. On the other hand, in Finland a tripartite agreement called The Competitiveness Pact increased the working time by an average of 30 minutes per week, without increases in salary. Austria also went in this direction, increasing the upper limit of weekly hours including overtime from 50 to 60 hours.

100 years after the ILO wrote their very first convention, the 8-hour workday is still under discussion and is subject to minor change. However, at present – despite the radical changes that we have seen in other aspects of working life – it does not look like significant reductions to working time are imminent.

Boredom from underwork, it seems, is not going to be a problem for some time yet.

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James Higgins

James Higgins

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Eurofound, a tripartite European Union Agency, provides knowledge to assist in the development of social, employment and work-related policies

Eurofound (European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions) is a tripartite EU body, whose mission is to provide knowledge to assist in the development of better social, employment and work-related policies.

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