A closer look at France's 35-hour work week controversy

Thie file picture taken in 2002 shows hospital employees holding a banner reading "35 hours" while marching in Marseille on a national day of action organised by four trade unions. France's new Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron grabbed headlines after
Thie file picture taken in 2002 shows hospital employees holding a banner reading "35 hours" while marching in Marseille on a national day of action organised by four trade unions. France's new Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron grabbed headlines after telling French weekly Le Point in an interview held prior to his appointment and published on Aug 28, 2014, that he would support a measure to allow businesses to extend the 35-hour work week. -- PHOTO: AFP

Newly appointed French economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, 36, has re-ignited debate by saying during an interview released on Thursday that he is open to relaxing regulations on a 35-hour work week.

His remarks raised hopes, especially in pro-business circles, for a revival in the French economy, which has been languishing for some time now.

But workers and trade unions are dismayed.

The 35-hour work week has been a legacy of French socialism and attempts to make changes in 2007 failed.

So, what is this controversy all about? Should one work shorter or longer hours? How long do we work here in Singapore, and the rest of Asia?

French President Francois Hollande (L) and new economy minister Emmanuel Macron. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 

What is the French debate all about?

Former President Francois Mitterrand from the Socialist Party introduced a 39 hour work week in 1982. But in 2000 that was reduced further to the current 35 hours. The rationale was that if people worked fewer hours, employers would be encouraged to hire many more workers.

Over time, however, rules were relaxed and some industries were exempted from the regulation. And, in effect, today French workers tend to work longer than 35 hours every week.

Still, the economy minister's remarks Thursday have reopened divisions.

Macron, a former investment banker, suggested that employees could vote to decide if they wanted to expand their work week. And if a majority of them wanted to do so, the hours could be extended.

"The key to a recovery in France is to liberate our potential energy to create activity," he was quoted as saying by Le Point, a French weekly news magazine.

Predictably, unionists were furious with Laurent Berger, the head of the moderate CFDT trade union, slamming the move as a "mistake".

"It's out of the question. The subject is closed," he was quoted as saying in a report by CNN Money.

The prime minister's office has since clarified that the government "will respect" the 35-hour legislation.

How did the 35-hour work week come about?

Here's a quick look at the history of the 35-hour work week in France:

1982 - President Francois Mitterrand decrees a shorter 39-hour work week and a 5-week vacation.

1995 - Government starts dishing out subsidies for significant reduction in working time.

1998 - France's new working time law was passed by Parliament in May. It sets the length of the statutory working week at 35 hours from January 1, 2000 in companies employing more than 20 people, and from January 1, 2002 for smaller firms.

2000 - The 35-hour work week is adopted by Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's government

2007 - President Nicolas Sarkozy announces his "working more for earning more" initiative, to increase the number of working hours. But it faces stiff opposition.

2014 - Economy minister Emmanuel Marcon provokes controversy by resurrecting a longer work week again. 


Is 35 hours a week too much or too little?

There's no definitive answer with opinion divided over the need to promote output from work and the need for a better quality of life.

Critics of the 35 hour work week said it crushed the spirit of Gallic enterprise, made already rigid labour codes even more inflexible and dragged French unemployment to record levels.

But there have been many in favour who claim that working fewer number of hours actually encourages workers to be more productive.

Sweden, for instance, embarked last week on an experiment to see if a six-hour work day would benefit public sector companies. Sweden hopes the move will reduce sick leave and boost efficiency.

How many hours do people work elsewhere?

There are several countries where people work longer hours than the French.

Full-time workers in Finland - where a debate similar to that in France is continuing - work for 39 hours a week, according to the Helsinki Times.

Americans on average work about 38 hours a week. 

Netherlands perhaps has the shortest work week in the Western world of 29 hours, according to a report by CNN, followed by Denmark where it is 33 hours. 

Indonesian workers make their way home in Tangerang. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

How does Asia compare with the rest of the world?

People tend to work many more hours in Asia. 

According to the International Labour Organization, most Asian countries have a 48-hour working week, but almost a third of the countries in the region do not have a regulated maximum number.

Another third put the weekly limit at 60 hours of work, the China Daily reports.

Japan - which was well known for Karoshi or death from overwork in the 1970s & 80s -   introduced standard working hours of eight hours per day and 40 hours per week, in 1994.

South Korea also introduced a 40-hour work week in 2003, but that was rarely followed.The law did not cover weekends and holidays, a loophole which allowed employees to put in more hours. Last September, South Korea cut the maximum number of work hours per week to 52, down from 68.

Among the five cities in the world with the longest working hours, three are in Asia.

Hong Kong ranked third among the 72 cities surveyed by UBS financial services firm, with the average worker spending 2,296 hours per year at their job.

In Bangkok, workers spend 2,312 hours every year and in Seoul 2,308.

In Shanghai, the average work year is 1,967 hours and in Tokyo it is 2,012 hours.

How long do we work in Singapore? 

An employee is not allowed to work more than 12 hours a day in Singapore. 

For shift workers, the Ministry of Manpower states that one can work up to 12 hours a day, provided that the average working hours each week do not exceed 44 over a continuous three week period.

In a report last August, job-listing website eFinancialCareers found that more than two-thirds of 1,738 of Singapore’s finance and banking professionals surveyed in the poll worked weekends, and about 43 percent remained contactable by their jobs at all times of the day and night.