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Economy

Germany's 25-Hour Work Week Proposal Is An Insult To Work

Germany’s ruling Social Democratic Party recently called for the introduction of a 25-hour work week, arguing that it's the only way to end "self-exploitation." What a strange understanding of work, argues one German expert in labor law.

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The German state can impose a maximum number of working hours in a week to protect employees’ health, but anything beyond that is unconstitutional.

Gregor Thüsing

-OpEd-

BERLIN — “In order to create a working environment that gives employees a good quality of life and self-determination, we are calling for a working week of 25 hours in the medium term," is the new stance on labor taken by Germany's ruling Social Democratic Party (SPD).

At its recent party convention, the SPD explained its approach: "To ensure that employees do not suffer financial losses, there should be no salary cuts. At the same time, this should not lead to an intensification of work, or increased pressure to achieve results. The reduction in working hours can be achieved through adjusting staffing levels.”

Economists are shaking their heads in bewilderment, and legal experts are just as confused. In Germany, the state does not decide how many hours its citizens work. It doesn’t have the power to do so. It can impose a maximum number of weekly working hours to protect employees’ health, but anything beyond that is unconstitutional.

Personal autonomy, as well as contract rights and freedoms apply here. It is not within the government’s remit to say employers must reduce working hours without cutting pay. Its power to impose laws about working hours is restricted to protecting employees from being overworked against their own will. Everything else is between the employer and employee, as set out in their contract.

Chairperson of the SPD's Young Socialists wing, Jessica Rosenthal, justified her proposal by saying it is about ending "self-exploitation" in this system. What system does she mean? And does exploitation begin as soon as someone begins their twenty-sixth hour of work in a week? I would like to be charitable and chalk up this economically and legally wrong-headed venture to youthful idealism.

It is the prerogative of the young to strive for unachievable utopias. But what kind of utopia is this, what kind of strange understanding of the nature of work? One that means more and more people working fewer and fewer hours, and ideally no one would have to work at all: universal basic income.

What does the Pope think about work?

Anyone turning their back on the world of work risks being accused of wanting to live in a hedonistic, frivolous society. That is perhaps too harsh and doesn’t get to the heart of the issue. But anyone who sees work as nothing more than a burden to be avoided forgets what Pope John Paul II succinctly stated in his 1981 encyclical Laborem exercens.

“Work is one of the characteristics that distinguish man from the rest of creatures, whose activity for sustaining their lives cannot be called work," the Pope wrote. "Only man is capable of work, and only man works […] Thus work bears a particular mark of man and of humanity, the mark of a person operating within a community of persons. And this mark decides its interior characteristics; in a sense it constitutes its very nature."

Pope Francis expanded on this in his encyclical Evangelii gaudium, writing, “It is through free, creative, participatory and mutually supportive labour that human beings express and enhance the dignity of their lives”.

"People must be at the heart of businesses"

Annie Spratt

Just ask Marx

For those who find these arguments a little too pious, you can find similar sentiments elsewhere. Marx and Engels write, “Labor is the source of all wealth, as the political economists assert. […] But it is even infinitely more than this. It is the prime basic condition for all human existence, and this to such an extent that, in a sense, we have to say that labour created man himself.”

The German Federal Labour Court said something similar many years ago, when it emphasized the employee’s right “through exercising their contractual occupation, to develop their personality and be respected and valued by the people around them.”

Don't gamble away your gains

That is all being cast aside. The main aim of a society can’t really be to work less and less. We must create a culture that values work. The aim of labour laws is to create better working conditions, to create a framework for good work that does not tolerate discrimination or exclusion, in which employees can rely on the stability of their working relationships, and in which their salary does not suddenly plummet.

That is the justification for laws about working hours, laws that protect employees against discrimination and unlawful dismissal, the minimum wage and safety regulations. In the past, the SPD themselves made lasting gains here. They shouldn’t gamble them away; they should remember and build on them.

Corporate social responsibility is also about how a company treats its employees.

It is a question of achieving a good balance between economic demands and protections for employees. People must be at the heart of businesses. Corporate social responsibility is not just about making donations to good causes, and not just about complying with environmental standards and acknowledging cultural realities, but also about how a company treats its employees.

The legal system has a right to demand this responsibility from employers. Labor law is an important tool in the fight. But that is its lasting justification, the reason why it is necessary. Twenty-five-hour work weeks are a mistake that a mainstream political party seeking to be taken seriously can ill afford.

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