German workers strike for 28-hour work week


Workers have downed tools at more than 80 companies across Germany as the country’s biggest union stepped up its campaign for a 28-hour working week to allow employees to improve their work-life balance.

In what is shaping up to be the biggest industrial dispute in the metalwork sector in three decades, more than 15,000 employees took part in warning strikes at factories including those of the carmaker Porsche.

The IG Metall union, which represents around 3.9 million workers, wants every employee in the metal and electrical sector to have the option to reduce their working hours for a total period of two years, with the automatic right to return to full-time employment afterwards.

German family policy took a shift in 2007 when a so-called “educational” benefit mainly aimed at mothers was replaced with a “parental benefit” that can be shared between the mother and father of a child.

Under the union proposals, workers who opt for a 28-hour week in order to take care of young children or ageing parents would get an additional allowance of €200 per month. Those who want to take a break from doing shift work with a high health risk would be compensated with €750 per year.

With the German economy in robust health and unemployment at record lows, IG Metall is also calling for a 6% pay increase across the sector.

“We want employers to recognise that traditional gender roles in modern families are changing, and we want workers to have the chance to do work that is important to society,” a union spokesperson said. “In the past, demands for more flexibility has come at the cost of workers. We want to flick a switch so that flexible working also benefits workers.”

Employers’ associations have rejected the union’s proposals, complaining that it would be too costly if, as predicted, up to a quarter of companies’ staff switch to the 28-hour model.

“We cannot meet the demands for compensatory wage increases,” said Oliver Zander, director of Gesamtmetall, in an interview with Die Welt newspaper. “At a time when there is a shortage of skilled personnel it would be mad to give an incentive to reduce urgently needed operating volume.”

Germany has around 1.1m job vacancies, and in a recent poll by the German Chambers of Commerce and Industry (DIHK) more than half of all companies cited a shortage of skilled workers as the biggest risk facing their business.

The employers’ group has compiled a legal dossier arguing that IG Metall’s proposals are illegal since they discriminate against workers who have already opted to permanently work fewer hours.

It has further argued that employers could only allow some workers to work shorter hours if in turn the union allowed others to sign contracts for a 40-hour week.

In Germany, where large companies are required by law to have workers’ representatives on their boards, industrial relations have traditionally been more consensus-based than in Britain or France.

The last major dispute in Germany’s metal-working sector came in the 1980s, when union demands for a 35-hour working week led to months of walkouts at factories across the country.

IG Metall launched an unsuccessful campaign of strikes in 2003 aiming to introduce a 35-hour working week in the states that formerly were part of East Germany. Fifteen years later, many metal workers in the former GDR continue to work 37 hours per week.

In Britain, where collective bargaining has over the years become dramatically decentralised, 37-hour working weeks remain the norm in the metalwork sector, in spite of efforts by the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions.

A third round of collective bargaining is scheduled to begin in Germany on 11 January. If the talks fail to yield a compromise, IG Metall could move from warning strikes to targeting individual factories with full-day stoppages.

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