European workers forced into pay-free extra hours

European
manufacturers forced to work harder to stay globally competitive

First
it was Siemens, then Bosch. Both manufacturing companies have asked workers to
put in extra hours at no extra pay. The trend seems to be spreading with other
firms in France
and Germany.
And now companies in Austria
and Belgium
are also said to be considering the move.

Siemens
had threatened to transfer 2,000 assembly jobs from two of its telephone plants
in Germany
to Hungary,
where labour costs are, on average, 80 per cent lower.

However,
after talks with the workers’ union IG Metall,
Siemens said it would keep the jobs in Germany
because employees had agreed to a 40-hour instead of 35-hour working week, with
no increase in wages.

The
firm needed to obtain a "lower cost position" for products such as
mobile and cordless telephones in the international global market, said company
spokesman Peter Gottal.

"We
have achieved an improvement in labour costs," he said, adding that the
company was in negotiation with unions to take similar steps at another four
manufacturing sites.

"The
general direction [for the company] is very clear – decrease labour costs and
come to a solution which includes longer working hours," he said.  

Earlier
this summer, more than 800 workers at a Bosch plant near Lyon,
France,
overwhelmingly agreed to work an extra hour each week – 36 instead of 35 hours 
for no additional pay. The German tool and car parts manufacturer had
threatened lay-offs and the outsourcing of a production line to the Czech
Republic.
 

The
deal was supported by the CFDT union, which represents the majority of Bosch’s
workers at the plant. The union’s Philippe Reau said while the union does not generally favour
a change in the 35-hour week, "saving jobs is what is most important".

Another
powerful union, the CGT, opposed the change and sees it as a blow to the
country’s law limiting the working week to 35 hours, claiming it will set a
precedent with other companies across the country.

The
35-hour week was introduced by the previous, socialist, government, but
recently employers and some French politicians have been increasing pressure on
President, Jacques Chirac to relax the law which, they argue, makes French
industry less competitive.

In
his annual Bastille Day television message, the French President ruled out
wholesale reform or repeal of the law, but he did say he would try to loosen
some restrictions to allow people to work longer than 35 hours if they chose to
do so.

Another
giant of industry in Germany,
car manufacturer DaimlerChrysler, recently asked workers in certain divisions to work longer hours on a voluntary basis for additional
compensation.

The
move was initiated to keep the company competitive, said company spokeswoman
Nicole Ladage. "It’s part of a comprehensive
package to secure employment in Germany,"
she said.

So
are longer working hours the best solution to the manufacturing industry’s
problems? Many critics, including the European Trade Union Confederation, voice
a strong ‘no’. General secretary
John Monks said: "What Europe
needs is not longer working hours, but smarter ways of working."

Economists
say a big deterrent for hiring in both France
and Germany
is the complex rulebook for redundancies. US executives in France,
for example, are less worried about the working week and productivity than
about the costs and legal uncertainties associated with reducing staff levels
that make it impossible for them to perform a full cost-benefit analysis of
their investment.

According
to Luciano Galliano, a
sociology professor at Turin
University,
the emphasis should be on making the existing work period more productive by
investing in more efficient technology, improving working conditions and organising
work better.

Nonetheless,
increasing numbers of companies with operations in mainland Europe
appear to be jumping on the bandwagon for a longer working week.

The East-West Divide

Country                        Average
hours                          Hourly
labour
worked per                              costs
(Euros)
worker per year                                           

           

Germany                      1,446                                       26.9
(£18.27)

France                          1,453                                       25.1
(£17.05)

Britain                          1,673                                       25.2
(£17.12)

Slovakia                       1,814                                       5.3
(£3.60)

Poland                          1,956                                       5.3
(£3.60)

Czech
Rep                   1,972                                       5.4
(£3.67)

 

Source:
Organisation for Economic Cooperation & Development, Eurostat

 

By Leah Larkin

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