Humane workweeks

Last month the French government shortened the legal workweek from 39 hours to 35. This follows a European trend, where French, Swedish, German, Italian, and soon Belgian and Spanish workers, will see shorter workweeks.

Meanwhile, in the United States the trend is in the opposite direction. We have an unenforced 40-hour workweek, and the average full-time worker now works 44 hours. Some work more than that because certain industries pressure employees to work overtime, including grueling 12-hour shifts, as employers move to continuous 24-hour production.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans put in more working hours during an average year than workers in Britain, France, Sweden, and Germany. They also have less parental leave, less affordable day care, and the least number of paid holidays and vacation. In some industries it's as low as 10 vacation days per year. The European standard is to give workers at least five weeks of paid vacation per year.

French employers, including US-owned companies in France, have opposed France's new law, warning that it will cause capital flight and job loss. Boosters of globalization, certain that their one-size-fits-all model should work for every nation, shake their heads over France - and Europe generally - for bending themselves around labor and environmental considerations that disadvantage them in competitive global markets. They are quick to point out that, while American workers may work longer hours and have less vacation, at least they have jobs. Europe, meanwhile, has been hampered by double-digit unemployment.

It seems that the punishing free-for-all of globalization and open markets is a zero-sum game, promising with one hand and taking away with the other. Sure, you can have a booming economy - like America's - but there are downsides. Too many of the jobs created are temporary or dead-end service-sector jobs. And without a safety net to cushion those who fall, the disparities become appalling: The rate of homelessness in American cities has reached a developing-world scale that Europeans can scarcely imagine. Forty million people, mostly children, are without health care. The income ratio of the top 20 percent of earners to the bottom is about 10 to 1 in the US, comparable with Latin America's rate, and double that of Europe.

Or, you can try some version of the European model, which factors social, labor, and environmental costs into the economy, resulting perhaps in a more humane outcome - but one dealing with higher unemployment and larger government deficits connected to the expenses of an ample welfare safety net. These are not coincidences. In a globalized world, they are two bedeviling sides of the same coin, the zero-sum game of competition.

In a competitive world, there always will be winners and losers. But it will be a race to the bottom if each nation tries to outdo the other in giving its workers the longest work hours, the lowest number of days off, and the fewest benefits.

*Steven Hill is the Western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. He is co-author of 'Reflecting All of Us' (Beacon Press, 1999). These views are his own.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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