Working Hours Thrashing Out a Flexible Future

In the age of increased digitization, nine-to-five jobs are becoming a thing of the past for many German employees. But trade unions and employers disagree on how flexible things should be in future.
Will more flexible working hours put an end to the rushhour?

Annelie Buntenbach didn’t mince her words. “The employers are needlessly poisoning the debate about working hours 4.0,” she said, referring to the ongoing digitization of German industry, known as Industry 4.0.  Ms. Buntenbach, a member of the federal board of the German Association of Trade Unions, or DGB, is taking a tough line against the Confederation of German Employers' Associations, the BDA. The association’s president, Ingo Kramer, has called for more flexible working hours in the digital age.

He wants to change from a daily maximum to a weekly maximum of 48 hours – complying with the new European Union guideline for working hours. The German law regulating working hours currently limits maximum daily working time to eight hours. In exceptional cases, this can be extended to 10 hours – providing the average daily working time does not exceed eight hours within a period of six months.

The collectively agreed weekly working hours would not increase according to Mr. Kramer’s proposal, but it could be spread more flexibly over the week.

Statistics show that in an international comparison of the number of hours of overtime worked, Germans are among the frontrunners, and the actual hours worked deviate from official working hours in many cases. “We need to compromise on a new flexibility in the tradition of Germany’s social market economy - one which goes hand-in-hand with new security for both companies and employees,” said Ms. Nahles recently during a progress report on her dialog about “working in the digital age.”

Even if many employees no longer work nine to five, there is no way that should become 24/7. Annelie Buntenbach, German Association of Trade Unions board member

The haggling about working hours in the digital age is in full swing. Since April 2015 Germany’s labor minister, Andrea Nahles of the Social Democratic Party, has been in an ongoing dialog with employer associations, trade unions and the population at large about “working in the digital age,” and discussions are set to continue until the end of the year, when a government white paper is due to be drawn up as the basis for possible changes in the law next year.

At the center of the discussion is the question:  How flexible do labor laws have to be to facilitate digital transformation?  Because the digitization of companies is seeing working hour limits become increasingly blurred.  While digitizing processes create more freedom, they also bring about new demands.

“Flexibility is the magic word for the digital age, not rigidity,” according to Lutz Goebel, president of the Association of Family Entrepreneurs, or ASU.  He backs Mr. Kramer’s demands. “There are still too many politicians and laws which reflect times when the classic trade union member spent his entire shift standing by a conveyor belt. It is time to update descriptions of working environments and also time for an update of working hours regulations.”

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But the trade unions do not accept that employees should make any more concessions. In particular, they want companies to give their employees more say with regard to their working hours. Ms. Buntenbach rejects Mr. Kramer’s proposal to change the limit from a maximum of eight working hours a day to 48 working hours per week. “The existing working time regulations already allow a great deal of flexibility – up to 10 hours work in one day,” she told Handelsblatt. “In the digital age too, the eight-hour day remains an absolute prerequisite for more flexibility, because there has to be sensible limits to a working day. Even if many employees no longer work nine to five, there is no way that should become 24/7.”

The Green Party also criticized Mr. Kramer’s initiative. “There is no reason to mess around with working time regulations,” Brigitte Pothmer, the Greens’ parliamentary spokeswoman on labor market policy, told Handelsblatt.  The existing law is “more flexible than Mr. Kramer claims,” she said.  Instead, she called for a new balance between employees’ and employers’ interests. “Employees need more flexibility and a greater say in what goes on. We need more home office arrangements and a working time corridor on the agenda - not a decrease in employee protection.”

The Institute of the German Economy (IW), an employer-friendly research institute based in Cologne, sees flexible working time models as a good way for smaller companies to hang on to qualified staff, particularly in times where there is such a shortage.  Lower levels of fluctuation, more satisfied, more independent employees and higher productivity are what the IW economists expect if employers and employees can agree on working times outside the rigid nine-to-five day.

IW economist, Sarah Pierenkemper actually warns against extending working hours.  “In the long run 10-hour working days are not conducive to productivity.”



Dana Heide is a Berlin-based reporter covering small and medium enterprises and startups, Donata Riedel covers economic and financial policy from Berlin. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected].