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The EU should institute a statutory maximum 35-hour workweek for all European workers

Updated: Mar 7, 2019

The European Union should institute a maximum working week of 35 hours in all member states.

Nicholas Vrousalis argues that a 35-hour working week is likely to be more efficient than an unrestricted or a 40-plus-hour working week. Also, reducing working hours would amount to more free time, which is desirable in itself. Studies have shown that many people would opt for fewer working hours, but would do so only if others would join in. Enacting a statutory maximum would help to overcome this problem of collective action.

A European directive limiting the working week to a maximum of 35 hours is a good idea for two sets of reasons. First, freedom from toil is desirable for its own sake; there are good principled reasons to go for a reduction in the working day. Second, in the context of an austerity-ridden, politically divided Europe, there are good strategic reasons why the EU should implement a shorter working week. Sound implementation of these principles would not only reduce Europe-wide unemployment and inequality, but could also serve to consolidate the demands of a European united front against austerity. I discuss both sets of reasons in turn and then respond to some objections raised in the Twelve Stars online debate.

Principled reasons

The working day, as we know it, is an artifact of capitalist civilization. Precapitalist civilization knew periods of hard toil from dawn to dusk in the fields, but also longer seasonal periods of relatively little work. In the mostly agricultural European economy before the Industrial Revolution, church holidays amounted to more days off than workers on four weeks’ paid vacation enjoy today. Crucially, pre-industrial civilization was unfamiliar with the machine-induced, year-round drive to make more money, to produce more stuff, to make more money, etc. In recognition of these facts, both proponents and critics of capitalism have defended a reduction in the working day. John Maynard Keynes, the economist’s economist, thought that a 15-hour working week would be both desirable and feasible by 2020. Paul Lafargue, Marx’s son-in-law, thought that free time – i.e. liberation from toil – was the very endgame of socialist emancipation. And Bertrand Russell idolised free time, arguing it is the mainspring of human freedom and creative activity.

Consider, first, the principled reasons for a reduction in the working week to, say, 35 hours. First, a 35-hour working week is likely to be more efficient than an unrestricted or a 40-plus-hour working week. Second, it is likely to be fairer and freer.

Take efficiency first. Suppose you were offered an extra week of vacation in return for a 3 percent drop in remuneration. Would you accept? Studies have shown that most people would accept, but only if others were also disposed to accept. In other words, people are quite prepared to exchange some of their absolute purchasing power for more leisure time as long as their relative purchasing power – that is, what they can afford in comparison to their peers and neighbours – remains constant. There is an assurance problem here, which economists often illustrate using the “stag hunt” game. It follows that law has a role to play, as the wellbeing of all can be increased by making a reduction in working time a general requirement.

Now take fairness. In general, long working hours are symptomatic of a separation between those who produce and those who manage those who produce. This separation, in general, is unfair and undemocratic, as producing for a wage entails not only that someone else is telling you what to produce and how, but also that you are disenfranchised from the process of deciding what to produce and how. This separation can only be abolished if working people take control of their working lives. A prerequisite for such control is more time for collective self-government, that is, a reduction in the time you spend producing, coupled with a commensurate increase in the time you spend governing your workplace. In other words, long working hours are evidence of an unjust social division of labour. Indeed, the division of labour is unjust even when it is managers who work the longest hours. If working in management requires a 50-hour working week, for example, entire social groups – such as parents of young children or people over 50 – will be largely excluded from management positions.

Next, take freedom. A 35-hour working week means more free time for most people, that is, time not spent trying to make ends meet. Free time, in this view, is an all-purpose means: Whatever your plan for life is, free time is a necessary precondition for fulfilling it. We won’t lead free lives when the wealthy can afford to buy all of our free time, even if we voluntarily sell them our fair share of that time.

Strategic reasons

In the EU economy’s present state, the case for a reduction in the working week would be strengthened if total wages remained constant – that is, if average wages increased following the implementation of the reduction – as that would boost consumption in addition to productivity. Some argue that the increase in average wages would harm profits and therefore increase unemployment. There is, however, little evidence that shorter working hours lead to more unemployment. If anything, the European evidence points to exactly the opposite direction, as shorter hours are correlated with lower unemployment. Take, for example, Austria, Belgium, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Switzerland, where the average working year amounts to fewer than 1,600 hours.

There is, however, some evidence that statutory restrictions on the working week, when not coupled by a robust employment policy, lead to unemployment. By “robust”, I mean an EU policy that severely restricts layoffs, boosts EU-funded employment subsidies, and makes EU states employers of last resort. In the absence of such policies, profit-maximising firms would have an incentive either not to hire or even to lay off workers as the productivity gains of a shorter working week kick in. The absence of such policies largely explains the moribund state of the French 35-hour week.

According to the OECD, the average length of the working week in northern Europe had converged to 37 hours in 2017. Introducing a 35-hour week is therefore likely to be smoother there. This is not, however, the case in southern and eastern Europe. On average, Greeks work about 42 hours per week (about 2,000 hours a year); the Poles and Portuguese work about 40 (c. 1,850 hours a year). This is a boon for the proposal if it is coupled with a robust full-employment policy: a 12 percent reduction in the working week for a 12 percent reduction in unemployment.

Strategically, it speaks in favour of the proposal that it is redistributive across EU countries. EU-funded employment subsidies, for example, could help to boost employment in the most deprived areas of the EU, much like structural adjustment programmes presently do. The only difference is that this money would now fund employment directly as an expression of solidarity between working people across Europe. Some objections made in the Twelve Stars online debate:

I want to work 80 hours a week.

Some people want not to manage their waste; others want not to pay taxes. These wants are unreasonable in the exact sense that they cannot form part of any free and fair system of social cooperation. It is similar with working hours: Just as the absence of waste legislation adversely affects nonpolluters and leads to a maldistribution of the benefits and burdens of pollution, the absence of hours legislation likewise adversely affects the most vulnerable employees and leads to a maldistribution of the benefits and burdens of work.

There is, moreover, a lot of evidence that people would prefer fewer, rather than more, working hours. Due to the assurance problem – and related market imperfections – this is impossible without statutory limits. Even in Germany, which has the lowest total working hours in the EU, about 42 percent of workers would prefer to work fewer hours. This preference reveals that they have not chosen their working hours, which, in turn, implies that they are separated from the process of production and, quite generally, from their conditions of work. As I argued above, this is unfair.

I can always substitute my time for more money.

Some substitutions between time and money may be physically possible but are not morally permissible; a just society would disallow or discourage them. This is what I mean when I say “we won’t lead free lives when the wealthy can afford to buy all of your free time” (p. 44). Buying all of a person’s time is impermissible because it amounts to slavery. But suppose you do not sell all of it; suppose you only sell, say, 60 hours a week. This, in my opinion, should also be prohibited by law.

The first reason for the proscription to work more impacts the freedom of choice of those who prefer working less. Another reason is that free time is special. Consider an example provided by the philosopher Julie Rose: A gets her fair share of income and wealth but spends most of her time caring for a relative in need. Intuitively, she enjoys less freedom than B, who has the same share of income and wealth, but does no such caring. What explains the difference is that A does not get her fair share of free time. So free time is special.

One might respond that A can permissibly hire someone to do that care work using her fair share of income and wealth. Some forms of work and care for others, however, cannot permissibly be substituted for money. You should not, for example, hire someone to go to your brother’s wedding or to console your best friend after her breakup. A just society would discourage transactions of this sort. So, you cannot always substitute your fair share of free time for more money.

Doctors or detectives cannot drop their work after seven hours.

Sometimes we need to work longer hours than usual; this is true of any system that restricts the length of the working week. But it does not follow that you cannot work more hours this week and fewer the next. It would suffice for the proposed policy that worker hours sum up to 35 hours per week across four, eight or even 12 weeks.

You are committing the lump-of-labour fallacy.

The lump-of-labour fallacy consists in assuming that there is a fixed number of tasks or hours of work to be done, which can be distributed more evenly across more workers. The proposed policy does not commit this fallacy, as it does not presuppose a fixed number of tasks or working hours. And, as I emphasised above, it will fail unless supplemented with the full-employment policy outlined on pp. 42-3. Without that policy, firms are simply likely to hire fewer people.

Unregulated free markets will lead to a 35-hour working week. There is no evidence of this. Although the length of the working week in northern Europe has fallen over the past decade, all evidence points to a sizeable inequality between northern and southern Europe, as the average German works about a third less than the average Greek and a fourth less than the average Pole and Portuguese. Working hours in southern and eastern Europe are, moreover, on the rise. The way to reduce this inequality is to reduce unemployment and working hours.

More generally, there is no theoretical reason why unregulated free markets should lead to a reduction in working hours. After all, free time does not boost consumption, which boosts sales, which is what makes employers happy. This explains why, during an economic boom, employers prefer to raise wages as opposed to giving workers more free time. As the Marxist political philosopher G. A. Cohen has pointed out, it is no coincidence that capitalists never advertise more free time; capitalist markets are biased towards increasing consumption, not freedom from toil.

A reduction in the working week without a commensurate reduction in average wages would harm corporate profits.

The 35-hour working week, appropriately implemented, would lead to an increase in the labour share of national income, especially in southern Europe. This is a boon for the proposal – indeed, a boon for any attempt to Europeanise resistance to perpetual austerity.

Online Debate

On 7 July 2018, Nicholas Vrousalis defended his proposal in the Twelve Stars debate. The main objections are presented below. Rebuttals can be followed in the online debate.

Background Research

Read up on current initiatives and proposals concerning this topic in our background briefing.


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