Shorter working week expected to get short shrift

An overwhelming no vote is expected to a proposal to shorten the working week

Swiss voters have been voting on a shorter working week, having rejected similar proposals on three occasions in the past.

This content was published on March 3, 2002 - 13:06

The initiative, drawn up by the trade unions, would see the work week gradually reduced to 36 hours, and a maximum limit set for overtime.

Under the proposal, employees working part-time would enjoy the same rights as workers with a full-time job. A key provision is that employers would not be allowed to cut salaries of people earning less than SFr7,800 ($4,600) a month, which is 50 per cent above the average.

Supporters say shorter hours would improve the quality of life and help to create more jobs. Opponents, however, see the proposal as a threat to Switzerland's economic productivity and its competitive edge.

According to international statistics, the Swiss work longer hours than most of their European counterparts. They put in an average of 42 hours a week and clock up some 160 million hours of overtime a year.

Quality of life

The Trades Union Federation launched its proposal in 1997 during a period of economic stagnation and relatively high unemployment of more than five per cent. The main aims of the proposal are to create more jobs and spread work more evenly among the population.

Regula Rytz of the Swiss Trades Union Federation argues that most jobs have become more stressful over the past few years as productivity has increased.

"We want to improve the quality of life for people in this rich country. It is important to achieve a better balance between paid work and time-off, so people have more time for their families or other unpaid activities," Rytz told swissinfo.

She points out that women in particular, who often work part time, would benefit from a shorter working week. She also hopes the proposed changes would encourage people to rethink traditional labour divisions between men and women.

Rytz says neighbouring France and Germany, as well as one example in Switzerland, are living proof of the positive impact of shorter hours.

France cut its working week to 35 hours in 1999, and similar measures were introduced in certain industry sectors in Germany. The Swiss Federal Railways introduced a 39-hour working week last year.

Threat to competitiveness

The unions face strong opposition from employers, the government, a majority in parliament and most political parties. They argue that reducing the working week would slow down productivity and seriously jeopardise the competitive edge of the Swiss economy, especially companies with a strong export base.

Opponents also say a reduction in working hours would hamper the flexibility needed in different sectors of industry and on the labour market.

"It is not so simple to reduce working hours or overtime. A worker on the shop floor, for instance, cannot just do the job of a technician in an office," says Johann Schneider-Ammann, a member of parliament and businessman.

Schneider-Ammann, who is also a leading representative of the engineering industry, fears for the future of the country's economy if the Swiss vote for change.

"Switzerland has a very strong economy. We are defending our advantages against other competitors," he told swissinfo.

Schneider-Ammann believes that most employees do not want to work shorter hours. He says many people would resort to illegal working practices by trying to take a second job if the 36-hour working week is introduced.

He also rejects the unions' argument that shorter working hours had a positive effect on the French economy, because unemployment did not drop significantly.

The Swiss government, for its part, argues that working hours should be negotiated between employers and employees according to legal regulations and without state interference.

Limited chances

Analysts say the proposal to reduce working hours in Switzerland has only a limited chance of winning voters' approval at the ballot box on March 3.

Most political parties and groups, with the exception of the Social Democrats and the Greens, have come out against the initiative.

The electorate has overwhelmingly turned down three similar proposals to reduce working hours since 1958.

Nevertheless, the working week in Switzerland has been slowly trimmed over the past 80 years, from 48 hours to the current 42-hour average.

Shorter working hours have traditionally been a key demand of the labour movement, particularly after a landmark general strike in Switzerland at the end of the First World War in 1918.

by Urs Geiser

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