Twenty per cent or more of the workforce in the United States, Australia, New Zealand and Japan work at least 50 hours a week, compared with fewer than 10 per cent in most European countries, according to a new publication authored by the International Labour Office (ILO).
"Working Time and Workers' Preferences in Industrialized Countries: Finding the Balance" (Note 1), produced by the ILO Conditions of Work and Employment Programme, argues that there are substantial gaps between the hours that people are actually working and the number of hours that workers need or would prefer to work.
"There are groups of workers with ‘excessively' long hours who would prefer to work less, and at the same time, there is a sizable group of workers whose hours of work are significantly shorter than they would prefer", said ILO expert Jon Messenger, editor of the new publication. The book includes studies from five specialists on the issue of working time in Australia, the European Union, Japan, New Zealand and the United States.
During the late 1990s, people working in excess of 50 hours per week in the US and Australia increased from 15 per cent to 20 per cent of the workforce. Among those countries included in the study, only Japan (28.1 per cent) and New Zealand (21.3 per cent) had a higher proportion working more than 50 hours per week.
By contrast, in most EU countries (prior to the 2004 expansion) the number of people working 50 hours or more per work remains well under 10 per cent, with figures ranging from 1.4 per cent in the Netherlands to 6.2 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 work.
The overall pattern underlying these variations is that countries with relatively limited regulation of working time, such as the US, the UK and Australia, tend to have a much higher incidence of excessive hours than other countries, according to the book.
On the other side of the equation, workers can have difficulty working enough hours as part time work becomes increasingly prevalent, including 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 book, half of all US workers would prefer shorter hours 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.
The publication concludes that 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.
In addition to this book, the ILO has also developed a database on working time providing comprehensive information on the working time laws of more than 100 countries around the world. The database covers the laws of each country that protect the health and well-being of workers; prevent discrimination against part-time workers; help ensure that workers have adequate time to devote to other responsibilities and interests; and facilitate a balance between work and family life. This database will be available online at the ILO website in November 2004.
Contact for journalists: If you need additional information regarding this issue please contact Jon C. Messenger at the Conditions of Work and Employment Programme, Tel.: +4122/799-7450, or the Department of Communication, Tel.: +4122/799-7911, 7916.
Note 1 - "Working Time and Workers' Preferences in Industrialized Countries: Finding the Balance". © 2004 International Labour Organization. Published by Routledge. ISBN 0-415-70108-2.