TCS Daily


Back to Work!

By Jeremy Slater - September 5, 2006 12:00 AM

Is the stereotype of the vacation-loving European an unfair one? A new poll published in the Financial Times suggests it may very well be. The survey found that a majority of the continent's workers would actually like to work more, not less. They actually oppose government efforts to restrict the number of hours they can spend on the job.

This should cheer economic reformers, but will the unions be so happy? Their very reason for existence is to negotiate shorter hours for workers. It appears they have been too successful in Europe; the shop floor is in revolt largely because workers are afraid they will lose jobs through outsourcing if they do not become more competitive.

According to the poll, conducted by market researchers Harris and the FT, a majority of workers in four of the five main economies of the European Union -- Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the UK -- support the idea that the government should not be allowed to dictate the numbers of hours a person can work in a week.

Fortunately, the European Commission has no plans to revisit the working-time issue and national government representatives at the Council of Ministers, after intense renegotiations last year, also chose to avoid further action. But that still leaves the European Parliament, which is continuing its debate on the future of the European Social Model this week in Strasbourg. As usual, antediluvian deputies will fail to have noticed any change in attitude among their electors and will rigidly adhere to out-of-date solutions to the problems of low growth rates and high unemployment. Luckily, debating this issue is all MEPs can do.

But this is not true of national civil services busy "gold-leafing" European Union legislation by adding an additional layer of regulation. The UK, under the Blair government, is renowned for embellishing already complicated laws from Brussels. The effect of this, along with Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown's constant changing of the tax structure, has meant that Britain has been dropping down international league tables that measure the competitiveness and business friendliness of the world's main economies.

The British government's latest wheeze is at a time of rising oil prices and therefore increasing productivity in the North Sea fields. It proposes that offshore oil and gas workers should be covered by EU rules on working hours. Oil companies are angry at this proposal and have claimed that the effect of this would be to close down large parts of North Sea production.

According to media reports UK Employment Minister Jim Fitzpatrick plans to introduce legislation this October that would, for the first time, limit the amount of hours that 17,000 oil rig workers can put in. This promises to be a serious headache for an industry that has relied on its workforce to put in long hours on base in return for lengthy periods of leave.

Perhaps Fitzpatrick should read a recent report from the European Central Bank that suggested one of the ways to alleviate economic troubles caused by an aging and shrinking European population was to extend the hours people work. "A number of euro area countries have a large potential to increase labor supply by raising average hours worked and the effective retirement age," the report says

Such a move should encourage companies to hire from sectors of society that are underrepresented in the current workforce, such as women and older workers. The ECB believes this would improve the efficiency of the European economy and make it strong enough to withstand the demands of growing numbers of the retired.

With Europe's politicians mostly back from their long summer breaks, perhaps it is up to them to catch up with what is going on and recognize the change of mood in the people they represent. Legislation that reflects this would undoubtedly allow Europe, after a long period of underperformance, to get back to work.

The author is a TCS Daily Contributing Writer living in Europe.

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3 Comments

Workers of the World Unite!
If European workers are so unhappy with their governments' restrictions onlonger working hours, why are these governments still in power? Europe is supposedly a collection of democratic nations. If the workers are afraid they'll lose their jobs to outsourcing due to their rediculously long vacations, why do they keep voting in bureaucrats who continue to treat work like it was a four-letter obscenity? I say, "Workers of the world -- or at least of "old Europe" -- unite! Roll up your sleeves and vote the bums out!

dyslexics of the world untie!
...

Free Markets?

European workers beginning to understand the free market? What is the world coming to?

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