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93rd International Labour Conference Working hours around the world: balancing flexibility and protection

In today's fast-moving world of virtual offices, home work and globalized commerce, are international labour standards on working time still needed? Yes, according to a study prepared by an ILO Commission of experts and delegates at the Organization's annual Conference. The Commission, an independent body monitoring the application of ILO standards, has concluded that international labour standards limiting working time are still necessary to contribute to fair competition between countries in a globalized world. Still, it is also clear that ILO Conventions Nos. 1 and 30 don't fully reflect modern realities in the regulation of working time and are viewed by an increasing number of countries as prescribing overly rigid standards. A panel of delegates to the Conference recently discussed the world of diversification, decentralization and individualization of working hours around the world.

Article | 13 June 2005

GENEVA - The question of regulating hours of work is as old as the ILO itself. Historically, it is one of the oldest social concerns. The reduction of working time and, more particularly, the eight hour day became a major demand of the workers' movement since the mid- 19th century.

The very first ILO Convention adopted in 1919 fixes working time in industry to a maximum of eight hours per day and 48 hours per week, with certain clearly defined exceptions. Another ILO Convention (No. 30) adopted in 1930 establishes similar rules for the sectors of commerce and offices.

Later, other ILO Conventions completed the international framework on the regulation of working time, guaranteeing workers at least one rest day per week and paid annual leave. More recently, a Convention on part-time work and another on night work were adopted by the ILO Conference. The first aims at promoting productive and freely chosen part-time work assuring part-time workers protection against discrimination, particularly with respect to employment conditions and social security. The second instrument is designed to protect the health of night workers, facilitate their exercise of family and social responsibilities and ensure their career development possibilities.

On the other hand, 20 per cent or more of the workforce in Australia, the United States, New Zealand and Japan work 50 hours a week or more, compared with less than 10 per cent in most European countries. According to a recent ILO study ( Note 2), there are substantial gaps between the hours that people are actually working and the number of hours that workers wish or need to work.

During the late 1990s, those working more than 50 hours per week in the United States and Australia increased from 15 per cent to 20 per cent of the workforce. With 28.1 per cent and 21.3 per cent respectively, Japan and New Zealand had the highest proportion of people working excessive hours of work in industrialized countries.

By contrast, in many countries of the European Union (EU), prior to its 2004 enlargement, the number of people working 50 hours or more per work remains well under 10 per cent, ranging from 1.4 per cent in the Netherlands to 6.2 per cent in Greece and Ireland. The only exception is the United Kingdom, where some 15.5 per cent of the workforce spends 50 hours or more at the workplace.

The overall pattern underlying these variations is that countries with relatively limited regulation of working time, such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, tend to have a much higher incidence of supplementary hours than other countries, the study says.

On the other side, workers can find it difficult working enough hours to make a living as part-time work becomes increasingly prevalent. This includes marginal part-time work with poor employment conditions, such as no health benefits or pensions and involuntary part-time jobs for workers who desire but cannot find a full-time job.

According to data from the study, half of all workers in the United States would prefer shorter hours of work while 17 per cent would prefer longer hours. In the EU, 46 per cent of those working fewer than 20 hours would prefer to work more and 81 per cent of those with at least 50 hours of work per week would reduce the number of hours worked if they could.

According to François Eyraud, head of the ILO Conditions of Work and Employment Programme, "finding the balance between business requirements and workers' needs will require working time policies along five dimensions: promoting health and safety; helping workers to better meet their family responsibilities; encouraging gender equality; advancing productivity; and facilitating worker choice and influence over their working hours".

Diversification of working time

These averages of weekly working hours may, however, mask a more significant change. There is a worldwide trend towards diversification in working time, even though it may reflect different realities in industrialized and developing countries. In many countries more people are working longer hours than the standard week, while an increasing number work shorter hours.

In consequence, the middle group, whose hours are grouped around the standard week, is shrinking. This diversification in length of working hours does not affect all workers equally, and the patterns may differ widely between developing and industrialized countries.

In the industrialized world and some developing countries, some managers and highly educated knowledge workers are "stretching working hours" based on the demands of their jobs. Such workers are among the primary beneficiaries of globalization, at least in terms of their high salaries and considerable discretion as to when they work. By contrast, in the developing world and some industrialized countries, low-wage and low-skilled workers are also likely to work long hours as they strive to obtain enough work to provide a decent income.

For example, a recent ILO study on working time in China ( Note 3) concluded that workers with lower levels of education were likely to work longer hours than those with higher levels. In Beijing, workers with a junior high school education averaged nearly 60 hours per week, compared with only 43 hours per week for those with a university degree.

Workers in informal employment depend entirely on the volume of work available at any given time. In Senegal, ILO research shows that workers in the informal economy typically work as much as necessary based on the volume of work - even on the traditional day of rest. Not doing so entails the risk of losing their jobs, so many of them will not refuse to work on these days.

Another dimension of diversification of working time concerns the scheduling of working time. This trend is certainly not limited to industrialized countries. As more businesses move to extend their hours of operation or introduce 24-hour continuous operations, an increased proportion of their employees are working on shifts, in the evening, at night, and on weekends, with different forms of arrangements, such as compressed workweeks. This is the case in Chile, for example, for about one-quarter of the workforce.

Tele-working, in which workers may deal with clients in a different time zone, can be a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week business. It includes telephone help lines, commonly referred to as "call centres", many of which have been outsourced to developing countries. In call centres, working hours can be highly unpredictable and working conditions very stressful, particularly where operators are required to meet strict performance targets or are subject to electronic surveillance.

Effects on workers' health

New and less standardized forms of organizing working time can have negative effects on health and safety and work and family balance. But they also create opportunities both to increase productivity and to better meet workers' needs and preferences for reduced hours or more convenient work schedules.

Where labour market institutions provide more structured support, as in some industrialized countries, employers and unions are better able to create "win-win" solutions. Nonetheless, developing countries too can implement new working time arrangements to the benefit of both the enterprise and the workers.

In Brazil, a collective agreement in one metal-working company has created an "hours bank" which allows the employer and workers to average hours worked over longer periods. It has resulted in increased flexibility in response to market demands and a fall in normal average weekly hours from 44 to 40.

The pressure of increased competition and phenomena associated with it, such as privatisation, subcontracting, outsourcing, and the use of homework, temporary contracts and other atypical employment, create new challenges for all countries. Although available data are inconclusive, there are concerns that these changes have led to increased work intensity, which in turn causes increased stress and a range of other psychosocial risks. They represent a major cause of accidents, fatal injuries, disease and absenteeism at work in both industrialized and developing countries.

Cleopatra Doumbia-Henry, head of the ILO Department for International Labour Standards, summarizes the challenges of the discussion at the ILO Conference as follows: "Delegates expressed very strong views on the pertinence of Conventions Nos. 1 and 30 in today's world. They stressed the need to find a balance between flexibility on the one hand and protecting workers' security, health and family life on the other. The discussion also highlighted the important role of the regulatory framework, collective bargaining and social dialogue in this field."

Referring to future action she said the ILO would present a document to its Governing Body summarizing the debate and leaving the decision on any follow-up to its tripartite membership. She also referred to proposals to organize a tripartite meeting of experts on working time to prepare guidelines that would put the issue as a general discussion item on the agenda of a future session of the International Labour Conference.

Note 1

Note 2

Note 3 - Zeng et al., The dual task of standardization and flexibilization in China, Working and employment conditions series No. 11, International Labour Office, Geneva, 2005.