August 27 2021
On September 26th 2021, the German federal elections will take place, determining the next ruling coalition of Europe’s largest economy. There are numerous issues high on the agenda, from climate change to the healthcare system, but German parties also have a long-standing tradition of engaging with the question of working time reduction. With the Covid-19 pandemic having disrupted standard working patterns, persistent concerns surrounding automation and climate crisis, and recent prominent trials of shorter working weeks in Iceland, Spain and beyond, the need for policies like the ‘4 Day Week’ has never been higher.
Acknowledgment of working time as an issue in Germany might be common – but we shouldn’t overlook a range of important differences between the policy responses of different political parties. As such, in this blogpost, I outline the platforms of the major German federal parties, drawing out some of the most significant points of divergence.
The Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD)
The SPD have only discussed working time reduction in terms of its potential to ensure that benefits from future productivity rises are shared by all. In particular, the party signals that it would back German trade unions, should they decide to campaign for more self-determined time and job security. The SPD has refrained from formulating any concrete targets for working time reductions on their own part, however.
The Green Party
Alliance 90/The Greens (i.e. the Green party) have suggested overhauling our current working culture to make it easier to balance work and family, while more evenly sharing care responsibilities among partners. They also point to shorter working hours as a means of coping with structural change in the economy, distributing work more fairly, securing jobs and easing the burden imposed by economic transformation on employees. In addition to a 35-hour week in the care sector, they have therefore advocated moving away from a rigid full-time working week and towards more flexible working times of between 30 and 40 hours. A proposal by the Green Youth to commit to a 30-hour week in the election program, however, was not adopted.
Die Linke’s (“The Left’s”) policy platform contains by far the most detailed discussion of working time reduction. They too, frame it as a means to preserve jobs while digital transformation changes industries. At the same time, however, Die Linke sees reductions in working hours as harbouring the potential to enable “time prosperity” for all. To achieve this, it has therefore called for a 30-hour week with no loss in pay, accompanied by any increases in staffing that this necessitates.
To ensure working time reductions do not lead to a further intensification of work, employee representatives are also to be granted an equal role in determining staffing levels. Additional tools suggested by Die Linke include a limit on overtime and an increase in the statutory vacation entitlement from four to six weeks. In this way, the party wants to offer access to employment that is as wide as possible by redistributing work, enabled through the introduction of a legal right to a minimum number of hours to counter the growth in part time contracts.
For Die Linke, working time reductions are not only seen as connected to other issues like gender equality and the environment, but a wide range of far-reaching social demands. For instance, the party have suggested that workforces be granted two paid hours a month to discuss work organization, working time, co-determination and occupational health and safety as well as to develop new initiatives for co-determination.
The FDP and the CDU/CSU
The positions of both the (neo-)liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the conservatives of the Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) differ clearly from Germany’s centre-left parties. The FDP has discussed the issue of working time policy only marginally, embedded in the overarching demand to modernize the German economy and public administration in the global “catch-up competition,” promising to increase individual freedom and self-determination on the one hand, while blaming allegedly outdated regulations for blocking such potentials. Accordingly, some have called for a flexibilization of the country’s Working Hours Act.
In concrete terms, we can assume that this would entail a removal of the maximum daily working time limit of 10 hours, so long as overall working time remained below 48 hours per week. This ‘flexibilization’ would also allow employers to interrupt workers several times a week outside of their scheduled hours in the interest of their continuous availability.
The conservative CDU and CSU have also advocated grounding the regulation of working time on a weekly rather than daily basis. Although they have also emphasised the importance of health protection for employees, the only concrete point mentioned in this context is that deviation from the previous maximum daily working hours should be avoided in so-called ‘hazardous occupations’. In contrast, the SPD, the Greens and Die Linke have explicitly rejected any softening of the Working Time Act.
At the very least, the liberal FDP have suggested some legal measures to facilitate board members and other executives taking time off in the future in cases such as childbirth, parental leave, caring for relatives or serious illness, allowing them to suspend their mandate for a limited time period. The conservatives in the CSU and CDU have made even more far-reaching demands in this respect, proposing reductions in working hours during specific life phases to support a ‘family-friendly’ working environment; to be materially supported by a so-called family time account and also, in some cases, state subsidies. However, the conservative parties and the FDP have not considered collective reductions in working hours.
Assessing the debate
Looking over the offerings of the main German federal parties, it’s clear that the demand for shorter working hours has begun to unite the centre left. At the same time, however, there are some important differences in the detail.
The SPD, for example, might talk positively about reductions in working hours – but this is only to the extent that productivity gains end up leading to job losses. As such, they risk overlooking how working time reduction was a secular trend of (West) Germany’s growing post-war economy, at least until the reunification. Since then, working hours have stagnated. If a reduction of hours was possible then, why not now? A bold reduction in working time such as the four-day week, for instance, can, in this respect, be seen as simply resuming the dominant trend prior to reunification.
The demand for a ‘self-determined’ working week, as raised by the Greens, also represents important progress. However, framing working time reduction in terms of an individual ‘choice’ increases the risk that such policies will be exclusively financed through individual wage concessions (i.e., people choosing shorter hours themselves), rather than linking collective working time reductions with accompanying economic redistribution. Thinking in these terms endangers making working time reduction a privilege of a few high earners.
On the other hand, it’s reassuring that both the Greens and Die Linke have come to see working time reduction as an indispensable route to a more sustainable economy through labour market policy, combined with increased time ‘prosperity’ and (in the case of Die Linke) redistribution. However, there remains a need – perhaps understandable given how important working time reduction is for ecological sustainability, gender equality, social justice and so on – for further reflection on the ‘techno-political’ effects that reduction in working time might induce.
For example, cutting working hours could generate a relative shortage in the labour supply. If demand for labour begins to exceed supply, companies will need to increase their attractiveness by offering prospective employees better working conditions – or invest in new technology. Rather than a vicious circle, where employees compensate for low wages by working more, thereby driving down wages, collective reductions in working time could thus also be seen as a means to begin to liberate workers from wage labour, while improving the quality of what remains. Reductions in working hours are not only a means of preventing technological unemployment or cushioning necessary structural changes – they can themselves also be drivers of further sociotechnical progress. It’s encouraging to see working time increasingly on the agenda of the German left, but it’ll be important that supporters continue to expand on their present terms of debate.
Philipp is a PhD researcher at the Institute for Technology Assessment and Systems Analysis of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (Germany). He is interested in critical theory and social philosophy, automation, post-work politics and alternative modes of futuring. In his PhD thesis he deals with the future of work and utopias of automation. Philipp is co-founder and board member of the Zentrum Emanzipatorische Technikforschung (ZET), a progressive technopolitical think tank based in the German-speaking countries.