Labor Market Making Work Work

Striking a better balance between work and family is often more important to employees than higher salaries. Lawmakers and labor unions recognize that, and they’re seeking ways to make the working day more flexible and adaptable.
Working for home can be a good option for more flexible work.

Evelyn Osterwald works for Volkswagen in Braunschweig on the axis production line. The young mother and her partner both have full-time jobs. Each day they have to decide who will pick up their two children from the daycare center. Flextime makes it possible.

But what happens when the children enter school and long vacations have to be dealt with? The legal entitlement to daycare is great, says Ms. Osterwald: “But after that, the children continue to live and are rarely put up for adoption.”

That is why Ms. Osterwald, who is a member of the IG Metall metalworkers’ union, is taking part in a working group to find ways to improve the balance between work and family life. The head of the VW works council at Braunschweig, Uwe Fritsch, believes working conditions have long become more important to the close to 8,700 employees working there than, say, an extra €100 a month in their paychecks.

In fact, the workers no longer want their life pressed into a 9-to-5 mold. People just starting their career might want to prove themselves and really give their all. But when children come, parents often want to cut back a bit. And when the children have left home, maybe they then have to care for their own parents.

With that in mind, the subject of working hours was the focus of this year's summer tour by the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB), which saw Reiner Hoffmann, the confederation president, and eight union leaders visit Braunschweig’s VW plant and a number of other factories across Germany.

IG Metall wanted to use the tour to beat the drum for new work models ahead of the next round of collective wage bargaining. Andrea Nahles, Germany’s labor minister and a member of the junior coalition party, the center-left Social Democrats, has long been searching for a “new flexibility compromise.”

After all, there is often a huge discrepancy when it comes to employees' desired working hours and the reality most workers face.

Germany’s workers put in just under 1.8 billion hours of overtime in 2015, and a good 50 percent of the hours were unpaid. In a DGB survey, every third worker said they had gone without vacations last year, usually due to work overload or out of fear of losing their jobs.

Smartphones and tablets have disconnected work from a specific place and time and thus created new flexibility and latitude for things like child care.

Smartphones and tablets have disconnected work from a specific place and time and thus created new flexibility and latitude for things like child care. The other side of the coin is that many managers and workers in key positions in retail or maintenance live in a type of permanent on-call, says Andrea Kocsis, the deputy head of the Ve.rdi trade union.

The fact that employers have sought to use the debate over the labor ministry's so-called Work 4.0 proposal to question the eight-hour working day has aroused the suspicion of the unions. They are worried that employees' guaranteed rest periods, as set out in the Working Hours Act, could now be under threat and warn about any further erosion of worker's rights. "We won't agree to that," Ms. Kocsis told Handelsblatt.

While one worker might complain of being overworked and wants more control over his or her time, others simply want to work more.

Take the example of Schkeuditz, near Leipzig, where around 10 years ago Deutsche Post subsidiary DHL located Europe’s largest hub for express air freight in the middle of nowhere. There, digitalization has long been the norm. Up to 60,000 parcels and packages per hour find their own way over the almost seven-mile long sorting facility.

Quelle: dpa
Labor Minister Andrea Nahles.
(Source: dpa)


Most of the work is automated and human employees are only required for heaving shipments out of the air cargo containers and loading them on conveyor belts. And that is at night, during a tight timeframe of only a few hours when the aircraft from America or Asia land in quick succession. Jobs were highly sought-after when the hub first opened. About 13,000 people applied for 2,000 positions then. But many of the workers soon complained the nighttime part-time jobs paid too little money. They wanted to work more but there was no demand for more hours. So the services union Ver.di demanded that the workers at least get more money per hour -- and in the collective wage bargaining managed to get a full week's work reduced from 40 to 38.5 hours in two stages by 2017, thereby raising the hourly wage by a few euros.

The DHL employees in Leipzig aren’t the only ones wanting more work.

Many mothers had reduced their work time to have more time to care for their children but are now stuck in a part-time trap. WSI, the Hans Böckler Foundation’s economic institute with close ties to trade unions, determined that around every eighth employee with a maximum of 20 hours of work a week – primarily women –would like to work at least five hours more. So Ms. Nahles plans to anchor a legal right for workers to return from part-time to full-time employment during the current legislative period. It's a measure that was already agreed to in the federal government’s coalition agreement.

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Apart from that, the government coalition is taking a wait-and-see stance. The so-called “anti-stress regulation,” which aimed to tackle the phenomenon of workers being permanently on-call, disappeared into oblivion after Chancellor Angela Merkel, leader of the center-right Christian Democrats, intervened. The same happened to the “family work time” regulation proposed by Manuela Schwesig, the family affairs minister and a member of the SPD.  Ms. Schwesig had envisioned that both parents could work 32 hours a week while raising children and the state would, in part, compensate for any wage losses.

The Social Democrats have not shelved either of the two measures, as was made clear at a recent conference on what labor policies the party will include in its manifesto going into next year's parliamentary elections. In addition, the SPD wants to support the unions in their efforts to “procure more working time autonomy for workers.”

Ms. Nahles, who at the moment is researching the implications of the digital workplace, has announced a willingness to loosen the rigid working hours act. But that, she says, would happen only on the condition of “bargained flexibility,” meaning collective wage or works agreements. What that might look like can be seen at VW in Braunschweig, where an agreement on “mobile working” was negotiated. When both employee and employer agree, workers are free to chose their working hours between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. Issues of extra pay for late shifts worked at home and the right to turn off the mobile phone must also be negotiated.

As working at home, or the home office, becomes more common many employers are adapting to the fact that employees will probably work at home more often in the future. The Deutsche Bahn’s Netz AG in Hanover, for example, is introducing flexible working time with its [email protected] project. In turn, there will only be eight fixed work places for every 10 co-workers in the future. “That’s what we works council members are called upon to help shape,” Susanne Bodle, head of the works council, told the visiting DGB leaders.

The tricky part will be balancing the wishes of the employees with the needs of the company. The union leaders are aware of that. “There is naturally economic pressure to make maximum use of machines and plants,” said the chairman of Braunschweig VW works council, Mr. Fritsch. “That’s something we, as IG Metall, certainly can’t evade.” Which means the brave new working world doesn’t apply to the large majority of classic shift workers.

Nevertheless, IG Metall’s boss, Jörg Hofmann, has a clear vision of what direction the next round of collective bargaining should take. He is demanding partial pay compensation from employers if IG Metall members reduce their work time for things like child rearing or caring for family members.

The question of who is to pay for the greater flexibility will certainly be one of the main issues debated. Also still unclear is how workers who don’t come under the collective wage agreement can gain more control over their working hours. That is, after all, almost 40 percent of the employees in western Germany; in the east, it’s about 50 percent. The proportion of those represented through a works council is even lower. So far, the government hasn’t commented beyond a commitment to strengthen the coverage of workers by collective agreements.

In any case, the unions are determined not to leave it entirely up to the employers. Since the subject of working hours has an essentially greater priority today than 10 or 20 years ago, one has to develop “individual solutions with collective security,” said DGB president Mr. Hoffmann. “One thing that won’t work at all is to spell out flexibility based only on business performance figures.”


Frank Specht is based at Handelsblatt's Berlin bureau and focuses on the German labor market and trade unions. To reach the author: [email protected]