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Commentary :: Labor
Rethinking Working Hours
03 Apr 2017
Working hours were and are a contested terrain. Power questions are involved: Who decides over time? Who determines when and how long someone works? Who decides over part-time or full-time, how work and private life are arranged or whether the dream of world travel becomes reality?

"Hello, I want my life back"

by Sophie Jaenicke

[This article published on 3/15/17 is translated from the German on the Internet, Sophie Jaenicke, b. 1975, works as a union secretary with IG Metal.]

Do you have time for family, relaxation and continuing education? For many employees, this is harder and harder to organize with Smartphones, tablets and official e-mails around the clock. Wage experts Stefan Schaumburg and Sophie Jaenicke describe how the IG Metal union is tackling this problem.

"Your evening calls. This time begins without you" is the message of a poster of the IG Metal union on the working hours campaign. The slogan describes reality today for many employees in industry. Working hours are going off course. Working hours (for full-time employees) are becoming longer, more flexible and unhealthier.

Workers in Germany are working more flexibly today than ever. New production- and office systems and market fluctuations set the rhythm in industry. Long work and working in shifts around the clock, on the weekend, in the firm or at the kitchen table is the reality for many in Germany. The access of businesses to working hours and life time is increasingly extensive.


Since 2016, the IG Metal union has set the working hours theme prominently on the agenda in factories, in wage policy, and in social policy after years of stagnation in working hours policy – or even worse after backward steps in working hours policy.

Employees must gain more self-determination over their time. We need a new working hours culture in which the personal interests of employees have more weight over against the flexibility interests of businesses. A debate around a general reduction of weekly working hours is not the focus of attention. The problems facing employees in factories are different. Given the constant access of businesses to the time of employees, flexibility and excessive working hours, workers yearn for more individual possibilities in their working hours – in the daily routine and in their lifetime. The question how work and life can be coordinated seems answered today more with individual reduction of working hours and more self-determination over their own time than with collective reduction.


Working hours was and is a contested terrain. Power questions are involved: who decides over time? Who determines when and how long someone works? Who decides over part-time or full-time, how work and private life are arranged or whether the dream of world travel can become reality before retirement?

Working hours control who can participate in working life at what conditions. They decide over health and how long people can do their job. They determine distribution of the work volume and how many people can share in working life or on the way to a digitalization of society.

Distribution questions are involved today as in the historical struggles around working hours. Making production flexible has led to enormous productivity gains. Who profits from these flexibility gains? New rationalization thrusts occur with the digitalization of the economy. Who will profit from these rationalization gains?

IG Metal union's goal is to be a functioning counter-power for employees on the working hours theme. In over 500 pilot projects, working time rules are being tried and tested and renegotiated in the interests of the employees. Better work in shifts, more access rights of employees in their acclimation time and regulation of mobile work are focal points.

Nationwide the members of the IG Metal union are discussion the working hours theme. The possibilities are as varied as the working hours. In February 2017, the IG Metal union conducted a massive employee survey on working hours. 2.2 million Questionnaires were distributed in the company. When the results are made known, we will redefine our working hours policy. The IG Metal union wants to reorganize working hours in the interest of its employees.

Legally deregulating working hours as employer-associations have urged again and again is superfluous. The performance of German businesses is excellent – with the legal regulations that we have. The question must be: what new protective rights are needed for workers who are highly flexible and work in an ever more mobile way? Work science demonstrates a higher degree of self-determination on work organization and working hours can reduce strain. Will workers of tomorrow have the rights and resources to balance the greater claim created by modern forms of work through more self-determination?

Are enough personnel on board so the work can be finished in the prescribed time without their health and private life suffering? We see a clear need for action here. Works councils must have more power in measuring personal needs. Personnel are often measured too quickly so the strain for workers and mountains of overtime are pre-programmed.

The IG Metal union has actively promoted the discussion around the future organization of working hours. IG Metal supports giving employees more working hour options in their lifetime. The concrete organization of such models will decide whether they can be attractive for employees in low-income sectors. IG Metal urges financial cushioning from legislators and reduced working hours for certain goals, particularly when reducing working hours facilitates life with children, caring for the disabled or continuing education. Care and education are social state tasks. The impacted must be better supported when the social state allows these tasks to be taken over privately.


It is time for businesses to pay back. Our time is our life – our life cannot be modeled according to stock prices or utilization fluctuations. Legislators are also obliged to create a better framework for self-determined working hours. It is time to act. The IG Metal union has now begun and the discussion around better working hours in firms and society will be carried out with greater dedication.
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