Europe turns to job-sharing, cuts workweek to boost employment

Governments in Western Europe have begun to fight rising unemployment with a relatively new weapon. But trade unions and employers alike have been slow to cooperate.

With unemployment in the European Community expected to continue its sharp climb upward - from 11.6 million, or 10.3 percent of the active working population today, to nearly 14 million in 1986 - governments across Western Europe have started to press companies to ''reorganize'' working time: cut the workweek, encourage early retirement, extend vacations, promote part-time employment, and generally reduce the labor supply.

But union and employer cooperation has been less than enthusiastic, and the results to date have been far from hopeful.

''We've been against the plan from the start,'' says Wilfried Beirnaert, director-general of Belgium's main employer association, the Federation des Entreprises de Belgique. ''Reducing working time may curb dismissals. But it will not create new jobs.''

Devised by Belgian Labor Minister Michel Hansenne, the so-called 5-3-3 plan set collective bargaining targets last fall at a 5 percent cut in working time, a 3 percent increase in hiring, and a 3 percent ''moderation'' in salaries.

Industry opposition, however, has meant an average labor-management settlement since then of 2.5-2.5-2.5. Although the government still says the plan will eventually save or create some 66,000 jobs, unions and employers are skeptical that it will do much to bring the country's unemployment figure below the current 515,000 - i.e., 12.4 percent of the workforce (third highest in the EC).

Skeptics here, in fact, point to the disappointing experience in France as a harbinger of what could happen elsewhere. In January 1982 the Socialist government of Francois Mitterrand decreed a nationwide cut in the workweek from 40 to 39 hours and an extension of the mandatory vacation period from four to five weeks, saying job openings would rise and unemployment fall.

Earlier this summer the government's own economic research institute, Insee, declared the experiment a flop. No more than 15,000 new jobs were attributed to the shorter workweek, according to Insee, and two-thirds of the companies in France have said they haven't hired a single new employee since the government-imposed changes in working time became law. Employers have had to pay out the same amount in salaries in exchange for less production, while savings to take on new employees have been nil.

Recently French Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy retreated from earlier promises of job creation and is pledging only to keep unemployment from ''running away,'' as it has in the United Kingdom and West Germany. Still, government forecasters predict that unemployment will rise from about 2 million now to 2.2 million by the end of 1983 - and will continue to increase next year as well.

Yet job-sharing is an idea that isn't going away in the rest of Western Europe.

EC Social Affairs Commissioner Ivor Richard has been urging governments to ''reduce and reorganize'' working time. This fall he is expected to publish guidelines for industry, trade unions, and governments.

Last month, civil servants in the Netherlands bore the brunt of a government attack on unemployment similar to that pushed by Mr. Richard. Interior Minister Koos Rietkerk told 150,000 ministerial employees, whose salaries already had been slashed by as much as 6.5 percent, that their jobs would be reduced to part-time status, accompanied by a further wage cut. And there are plans to extend the policy to the health sector.

In West Germany, meanwhile, the job-sharing issue is expected to make the annual round of labor-management collective bargaining negotiations this fall tougher than usual. The trade unions have called for a 35-hour workweek (at present it is 40 hours), saying the change would save hundreds of thousands of jobs. But employers have countered that such a cut would result in the loss of thousands of jobs unless it were accompanied by large reductions in pay - something the unions will never agree to.

Britain has been experimenting with job-sharing programs which it says have kept more than 330,000 workers off the dole so far. But many companies dispute that claim.

Two leading thinkers on the issue - Prof. James Ball, principal of the London Business School, and Michel Albert, former head of the French planning commission and now president of an insurance company - have said in a report compiled for the European Parliament that while ''not all collective methods of reducing working time are necessarily doomed to failure,'' their common feature has been ''their very limited scope in relation to the overall unemployment problem.''

When the programs do fail, Ball and Albert say, it is because of ''the difficulties workers have in collectively accepting a partial limitation of salaries.''

That is why, they argue, ''if we are to obtain substantial results in the employment field in the medium term, it is indispensable that any reduction in the length of working hours should principally be a matter of free personal choice.''

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