(20.05.1998 - Kimmo Kiljunen) Productivity is rising steadily. Over the current century output per hour has increased 25-fold. We are achieving production targets more easily and rapidly than ever before. All of this is extending available leisure time.
This increased leisure time can be divided evenly, bringing benefits to each and every one of us, or it can be managed by forcing part of the labour force to discontinue working life. Ultimately this choice is a political one.
Historically, some of the productivity increase has been used to shorten hours of work. At the beginning of this century the average working year in Finland was about 3,000 hours. Now it is only 1,700 hours.
In Summer 1917 Finland became the first country in the world to approve legislation on the eight hour working day.
The last legislative reform of regular hours of work was enacted in 1965, when Finland adopted a five-day, 40-hour working week. Currently the average working week in Finland is 38 hours.In most cases reductions in working hours in western industrialised countries have been implemented at times of rapid economic growth. The preference has been for extended leisure time, instead of income growth, resulting in an enhanced quality of life.
Nowadays the demand for shorter working hours is a reaction to a crisis in working life. Cutting working hours is one way to solve the unemployment problem. It is not proper for some people to work to an extreme while others have no work at all.Without a deliberate policy on working hours, gainful employment tends to be unevenly distributed. Work sharing, like income distribution, is a question of political will.
Shortening working hours by means of legislation has become the subject of a heated debate. In France the socialist-led government has launched a reform to limit the working week to 35 hours by the start of the year 2000 without cutting wages and salaries. The Italian government has followed suit, while in Germany the trade unions have worked energetically for the same objective.
The European Trade Union Confederation ETUC has also issued a statement supporting a 32-hour working week.
In Finland, the largest central trade union organisation SAK concluded at its congress that reducing unemployment requires the redistribution of work. The goal is a 30-hour average working week.The employers' camp is fiercely opposed to these plans and demands. They are prepared to accept more flexible working hours but only through local collective bargaining, and not by changing legislation. The employers are not convinced that a general reduction in hours of work would reduce unemployment. In their opinion, the result could be the opposite if the reform were to undermine competitiveness.
On the other hand, nobody can claim that the unemployment rate is entirely independent of actual working hours. In the USA, Great Britain and the Netherlands, for example, unemployment rates are below average while the proportion of part-time work is exceptionally large. One third of the labour force in these three countries is in part-time work, while the corresponding proportion in Finland is only 8 per cent.When demanding shorter working hours it is wise to avoid becoming obsessed with only a single alternative, e.g. weekly working hours.
There is definitely also a need to reduce weekly working hours but attention should be paid to working hours over the entire life cycle. There are several alternatives: a 4-day working week, a 6-hour working day, extended annual leave, sabbatical and educational leave, parental leave and early retirement schemes. All of these are needed, as the individual case warrants.
The question is not only about improving employment statistics but also about welfare, family values and quality of life.
As long ago as the 1960s the Finnish professor Paavo Seppänen proposed a 2 x 6 working hour model. Per employee the daily working hours would be cut but the operating times of factories and opening hours of service facilities would be extended. The productivity of work and the utilisation rate of machines, equipment and working space would rise. Both economic and social well-being would improve.
Seppänen's model did not seek to solve an unemployment problem but to adapt working hours and leisure optimally to the needs of modern society.
It may be a coincidence that arithmetically Seppänen's model would solve Finland's present huge level of unemployment. If the extra leisure of the unemployed were to be shared evenly between those in work, then it would come to 400 hours a year for each and every worker gainfully employed. This equals the 30-hour working week and 6-hour working day.
According to opinion polls, three out of four Finnish employees would agree to reduced working hours without full income compensation if this provided work to the unemployed. The same proportion of entrepreneurs are ready to support shorter working hours for their employees - naturally with a reduced pay-cheque.
SAK president Lauri Ihalainen has proposed a national solidarity agreement which would include a sectoral reduction in working hours without full income compensation. The State could ameliorate the agreement with tax cuts so that net income would not decrease significantly. A condition of the agreement would be a commitment by the employers to hire unemployed workers.
What is it that makes it so difficult to implement these proposals? Why have there not been more purposeful efforts to reduce working hours?
Each and every one of us could benefit. The marginalisation of the unemployed could be prevented. Stress and exhaustion among those in work could be alleviated. Macro-economic purchasing power would improve and the public sector economy would be stimulated.
Unemployment is a manifestation of individual tragedy and macroeconomic wastage which we cannot afford.