By David Michaels

Seventy years ago, economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandchildren’s generation would enjoy three-hour workdays. Instead, a new study reports, one in five workers worldwide logs “excessive” hours.

The study, Working Time Around the World, reviews global working time issues, including national laws and working time policies, trends in actual working hours, the specific experiences of different economic sectors and different types of workers, and the implications for working time policies. Authors Seangheon Lee, Deirdre McCann, and Jon C. Messenger of the International Labour Organization examine working time in over 50 countries, with an emphasis on exploring implications for working-time policies in developing and transition countries. The study’s most sobering estimate is that 22% of the global workforce, or 614.2 million workers, are working more than 48 hours a week. In some countries, a sizable proportion of the workforce work very long hours:

In terms of those countries with the highest incidence of long working hours for 2004-05 (defined as more than 48 hours per week), Peru topped the list at 50.9 per cent of workers, the Republic of Korea at 49.5 per cent, Thailand at 46.7 per cent, and Pakistan at 44.4 per cent . In developed countries, where working hours are typically shorter, the United Kingdom stood at 25.7 per cent, Israel at 25.5 per cent, Australia at 20.4 per cent, Switzerland at 19.2 per cent, and the United States at 18.1 per cent.

The study covers the gender gap in working time, the expanding service sector and informal economy, and challenges that confront those attempting to reduce working hours in countries where the average work week is excessively long. The authors offer policy suggestions, including:

• reducing long working hours to lessen the risk of occupational injuries and illnesses, and their associated costs to workers, employers, and society as a whole;
• adopting family-friendly working time measures adapted to national circumstances, such as flexi-time, emergency family leave, and part-time work;
• promoting the development of high quality part-time work, shaped by local institutions and traditions and informed by the principles and measures found in the ILO’s Part-Time Work Convention, 1994 (No. 175), which can help promote gender equality;
• adopting reasonable statutory hours limits that can contribute towards enhancing firms’ productivity, and measures to assist enterprises to improve their productivity, in order to help break the “vicious cycle” of long working hours and low pay;
• considering measures that allow workers to devote more time to their families and to have more influence over their work schedules, in order to make formal economy jobs a possibility for more women.

Read the whole report to learn more – if you’ve got the time.

David Michaels heads the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy (SKAPP) and is Professor and Associate Chairman in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health, the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.

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