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Published: Sunday, 11/28/2004

Europe's workers' paradise faces change

BY MICHAEL WOODS
BLADE WASHINGTON BUREAU

BARCELONA - When Kristin K. Lay began planning a May, 2005, wedding here, she discovered a clause in Spanish employment law that seemed mind-boggling to someone used to the American way of work.

She and fianc Bart-Jan H. LePoole, it seems, are entitled to a "honeymoon leave" - 3 weeks of vacation with full pay.

"I was surprised," said the chemistry teacher at an international school here. "I had never heard of a benefit like this. In the United States, we would have had to wait and plan the honeymoon for summer or Christmas."

If the two eventually start a family, they can share 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, also required by law. They'd have more in other countries. Sweden, for instance, provides 360 days of maternity leave at 80 per cent of full salary.

Such generous perks, common throughout Europe, are only the icing on an employment cake that would make many an American worker drool.

Europe earns its reputation as the leisure society, where law and custom run against the live-to-work tide in the United States. Europeans "work-to-live," thanks to workweeks as short as 35 hours, 40 days of paid vacation, cash bonuses to fund vacation travel, and other benefits.

During the last few months, however, new labor agreements in Germany, France, and other countries have convinced experts that the tide has begun to turn.

After embracing American music, movies, and fast food menus, Europe is eying the American way of work.

"In Germany, there is a clear trend to longer working hours," said Ferdinand Dudenhoeffer, who directs a noted industry research center at the University of Gelsenkirchen. "The 35-hour work week will be given up step by step and in my opinion in about 2 years will no longer exist in Germany."

Other benefits also are on the endangered list, Mr. Dudenhoeffer said. German workers now are guaranteed 30 days of vacation each year, plus time off with full pay for about 10 national holidays. As the German workweek moves toward American's 40-hour level, employers will whittle away at holidays and vacations, Mr. Dudenhoeffer predicted.

Martin Werding, who heads the labor department at Germany's Institute for Economic Research, said the trend toward working longer hours at constant pay actually began in the late 1990s. But, it involved small local and regional companies, and got little public attention.

In 2004, however, big global companies such as Siemens, DaimlerChrysler, and General Motors' Opel division launched efforts to stretch workweeks for tens of thousands of employees. An invisible trend suddenly got a higher profile.

"It is highly likely that this will invite managers in many more firms to take up negotiations for similar agreements," Mr. Werding said. "The trend will certainly gain momentum."

Harley Shaiken, a University of California-Berkeley professor who specializes in labor economics, sees it as Europe's own particular solution to a problem that industry faces everywhere: How to cut labor costs and stay competitive.

"In the U.S., the drive to cut costs is more targeted to lower wages and reduced benefits - especially health care," Mr. Shaiken said. "Employers have targeted the shorter work week in Europe because they view it as more achievable than say cutting jobs or lowering wages. I suspect we will see fierce and continuing employer pressure to extend the work week throughout Europe."

Things are cushy for workers in many European countries.

Each year, Europeans work up to 12 weeks less than Americans, according to the International Labor Organization, a United Nations Agency.

Vacations are guaranteed by law, not set by individual companies. They also are generous and transportable, so that the newest hire still gets a minimum 20 days off in many countries. Americans, in contrast, average 10 days of vacation annually, according to the U. S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

European "bank holidays" expand leisure time by a dozen more days in some countries, with "the bridge" a time-honored practice. When a holiday falls in mid-week workers can carry it over to a Friday or Monday for a long weekend. In some offices, coffee breaks are a time to stretch the legs and shorten the workday with trips to the corner caf.

But the situation in France and Germany, where workers are among the most pampered on Earth, brought things to a boil.

A French law in 2000 cut the workweek from 39 days to 35. It now covers two out of every three workers. The goal was to create jobs and cut unemployment. If workers put in fewer hours, more workers would be needed for the same number of jobs. French workers also get 25-30 days of vacation plus a dozen bank holidays.

Over the border in Germany, the 35-hour workweek has been enshrined in custom and labor agreements, rather than law. Even a new-hire factory worker averages 30 days of vacation and a slew of national holidays.

The bottom line fortifies America's live-to-work reputation. French workers put in an average of 1,453 hours in 2003, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Germans worked 1,446 hours. The average American logged 1,792 hours - 339 hours more than France and 346 more than Germany.

Europe's siesta began to end in June, when unions at two Siemens mobile telephone factories in Germany signed a landmark contract. They agreed to increase the workweek from 35 hours to 40 - with no extra pay. Workers also gave up bonuses that many used to finance vacations. Instead, they will get bonuses based on productivity, intended to encourage harder work.

In July, French workers at the Robert Bosch auto parts plant in Lyon agreed to work 40 hours for the same pay, in a challenge to the French workweek law. The French government so far has not opposed the contract.

Momentum grew during the summer. Security guards, cafeteria workers, and other support staff at DaimlerChrysler's Mercedes division in Sindelfingen, Germany, agreed to work 39 hours for 35 hours' pay. Assembly line workers will continue on 35-hour schedule for now. In Belgium, the Marichal Ketin steel company told its staff to work 40 hours instead of 36 at no extra pay.

Last week, 32,000 workers in General Motors' European Opel division offered to extend their workweek to 40 hours without a pay raise. It would save 10,000 job cuts that GM Europe says are needed to reduce production costs.

Other global and regional companies announced plans to extend their workweeks. Some governments are moving in the same direction. The Bavarian government, for instance, increased the workweek for 140,000 civil servants to 40 hours to 42 without extra pay. Germany wants to extend the workweek for federal government employees from 38.5 to 40 hours. The German national railroad wants conductors and engineers to work 6 more hours without extra pay.

Government leaders, including German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and French President Jacques Chirac support, a longer work week. Dutch economy minister Laurens Jan Brinjhorst has urged a return to the 40-hour workweek throughout The Netherlands.

The move away from a leisure society began with concern about loss of jobs to China and other Asian countries with lower labor costs, Mr. Werding said. It shifted into high gear in May, when 10 new countries joined the European Union.

They include Eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary where workers are less pampered. Wages in the Czech Republic, for instance, are 40 per cent less than in France or Germany. Employees work longer and get less vacation.

Concern about moving jobs to Eastern Europe helped several companies, including DaimlerChrysler and Siemens, got longer hours and other concessions from workers.

"Extending working hours without adjusting pay is an elegant approach to reducing labor costs," Mr. Werding noted. "Workers at least suffer no loss in their regular income."

Government officials in France and Germany already have floated trial balloons about reducing the number of holiday and vacation days. However, those perks and social benefits like honeymoon and maternity leaves so far remain untouched.

Mr. Dudenhoeffer doubts whether such leisure society mainstays will be around in present form when wedding bells ring and holidays beckon for Europeans in the future. Within the next 5 years, he predicted, those perks will start looking more like their American counterparts.

Contact Michael Woods at: mwoods@nationalpress.com.



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