Reports from the Economic Front

a blog by Marty Hart-Landsberg

Monthly Archives: October 2014

A Shorter Workweek

Iceland continues to experiment with new ways to promote majority living standards.  See here for a discussion of the country’s unorthodox response to the 2008 global financial collapse.  

According to the Icelandic Grapevine, a bill has been submitted to the Icelandic parliament that would shorten the workweek.  More specifically, it would change the definition of a full time workweek to 35 hours instead of the current 40 and the full workday to 7 hours rather than the current 8.

As the Grapevine reports:

The bill points out that other countries which have shorter full time work weeks, such as Denmark, Spain, Belgium, Holland and Norway, actually experience higher levels of productivity. At the same time, Iceland ranked poorly in a recent OECD report on the balance between work and rest, with Iceland coming out in 27th place out of 36 countries.

The bill also points out that a recent Swedish initiative to shorten the full time work day to six hours has been going well, with some Icelanders calling for the idea to be taken up here. In addition, the bill also cites gender studies expert Thomas Brorsen Smidt’s proposal to shorten it even further, to four hours.

Although it is not easy to establish a clear relationship between work hours and productivity, as noted above there is reason to believe that the relationship may be inverse.  In other words, the shorter the workweek the more productive we are.

There is certainly a significant variation among countries in the length of the workweek as the following information from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows:

hours worked

In 2011 the average annual hours worked per employed person in the U.S. was 1758.  The number for French workers was 1476.  It was 1411 for German workers.  Assuming a 40 hour workweek, the average US worker had a work year more than two months longer than the average German worker.  It is also worth noting that while all the countries that reported data for the entire period 1979 to 2011 showed reductions in work time, the reduction was the smallest in the U.S.

It would certainly be nice, for many reasons, if someone in the U.S. Congress followed the lead of Iceland and introduced  a bill to reduce work time in the U.S.

Worker Struggles At Samsung

Our media celebrates the dynamism of our leading technology companies.  The message is that our world would be better if only other businesses could replicate their practices.

Not surprisingly, it is their products not their labor practices that draws the most attention.  Unfortunately, many of the firms on the cutting edge of technology also tend to be leaders in fashioning the most alienating and exploitative labor practices.

It took suicides and strikes to bring attention, if only for a short period, to the dreadful working conditions in the China-based factories that produce Apple products.  See here and here.

Samsung, the leading Korean technology company and Apple’s main competitor, is no better. Samsung has used all means possible to keep its operations non-union.

The following is the beginning of an interview with Sunyoung Kim, the chair of the Samsung Electronics Service Union, about the union’s recent victory, becoming the first recognized union in the company’s 76 year history. The interviewer is Dae-Han Song, the International Strategy Center’s Policy and Research Coordinator. 

Sunyoung Kim: We started the union because of the harsh working conditions. Sometimes, we might work twelve to thirteen hours a day, and still not make the minimum wage. You might come to work on Saturday or Sunday from 8:00 to 6:00 PM and come out on the minus. Why? Because you didn’t get paid, but you still had to pay for lunch and gas. You even had to pay for your own training from Samsung. In addition, our work is dangerous, whether it is installing air-conditioning, or climbing a wall, or working with live electricity. Despite these dangers, the company doesn’t provide any safety equipment. We have to wear neckties even when working with moving parts. They force us to wear dress shoes even when working on a roof in the rain, just for the sake of maintaining a clean and professional image.

Dae-Han Song: How can a person work 12 to 13 hours a day and not even get paid the minimum wage?

Sunyoung Kim: It’s a system based on commission. There is no base pay. You are basically a freelancer. You come in to work, and if there is work you work if there is not then you just stay in the office. However, while a real freelancer can decide whether or not to show up to the office, we have a specified clock in and clock out time. When there is work, we just keep working. In the summer, there’s a lot of work: air conditioning, refrigerators. So, we just keep on working until everything is done. Not only is working such long hours exhausting, it is also exhausting doing so in the summer heat. Sometimes you don’t get home until 12:00 AM and can’t even rest on the weekends. That’s when we make our money that carry us through the fall, winter, spring when there is little work. In these off seasons we might sometimes just get one or two calls in a day and since we get paid by commission, if we don’t work, we don’t get paid.

The complete interview was published by the Korea Policy Institute, an excellent source for information on Korea, and can be found here.