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UNIONS

Germany’s largest union escalates fight for 28-hour work week

The largest union in Germany is bracing for a combative start to the new year as it presses demands for a 28-hour working week, warning employers to expect mass strikes in the battle for a better work-life balance.

Germany's largest union escalates fight for 28-hour work week
IG Metall workers demonstrating with signs reading 'self determined work time.' Photo: DPA

The mighty IG Metall union, which represents some 3.9 million workers in the metal and electrical industries, says it is ready to flex its muscles after initial negotiations with employers made little headway.

An agreed no-strike period ends on December 31st, and IG Metall chief Joerg Hofmann has told employers to expect brief “warning strikes” from January 8th, and he said more widespread action could follow.

“If by the end of January the employers have not changed their stance, we will consider resorting to 24-hour strikes or calling a vote for a general strike,” Hofmann told DPA news agency this week.

Seeing its bargaining power strengthened at a time of bulging order books and record-low employment in Europe's top economy, the union is pushing for a six-percent wage increase.

The Gesamtmetall employers' federation has so far offered two percent, setting the stage for both sides to meet somewhere in the middle.

Far more controversial is IG Metall's call for employees to be allowed to switch to a 28-hour week for a two-year period — with limited impact on wages.

That demand has been met with fierce resistance from company bosses, and stirred wider debate about quality of life and the future of work in booming Germany.

In certain circumstances, IG Metall says reduced working hours must not go hand-in-hand with a drastic salary cut — for instance when staff are caring for young children or ailing relatives.

In those cases, the union wants employers to top up workers' salaries to help make up for the shortfall that comes with clocking up fewer hours.

It also wants employees to be guaranteed a return to a 35-hour week after two years.

Radical rethink

“I think IG Metall's proposal is very modern,” professor Gustav Horn of the Hans-Boeckler Foundation think tank told the Nordwest Zeitung daily.

He said it would inevitably lead to higher costs that would hurt the bottom line, but could also be a way for firms to hold onto their best workers.

“In future, well-qualified employees will select those companies that offer flexible hours that suit their lives at that time,” he predicted.

But Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg bank, said a shorter week would mainly hurt small and medium-sized companies who could struggle to meet production targets.

“If it would be replicated throughout the economy, it could do serious damage,” he said, in a nod to IG Metall's track record of paving the way for major changes to the work environment.

IG Metall, which represents the powerful car and machine manufacturing sectors so crucial to Germany's economic success, led the campaign for a 35-hour week in the 1990s.

But this time, it is pushing for a radical rethink on part-time work.

“The time has come for workers to demand more self-determination to adapt working hours to their personal situation,” Hofmann told reporters in October.

He said the trend for more flexible working hours in recent years had mainly benefitted bosses who got staff to work longer days.

'Costly, unfair' 

The Gesamtmetall employers' federation has slammed IG Metall's demand for less work at roughly the same pay as “too costly” and “unfair”.

It says employees already have the option of working part-time if they wish, with a pay packet to match.

“Our rule is: if you work more, you earn more. If you work less, you earn less,” Gesamtmetall chief Rainer Dulger said in a recent interview with regional media.

He added that the proposed measure could lead to a shortage of skilled workers in sectors crucial to the country's economy.

IG Metall has hit back at the criticism, saying firms were losing out on skilled workers by not meeting their needs, particularly among the female workforce.

The controversy is likely to spill over into politics in coming weeks, as Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives head into negotiations with the Social Democrats on forming another coalition government.

Former labour minister Andrea Nahles, who will be a main negotiator for the Social Democrats in the upcoming talks, has already said it was “a good thing” that IG Metall was putting working time at the heart of its demands.

CHRISTMAS

Strikes hit Amazon in Germany in the run up to Christmas

Around 2,500 Amazon employees at seven sites across Germany were on strike on Tuesday and unions warned stoppages could continue up to Christmas.

Amazon parcel in factory
A parcel rolls along a conveyor belt at an Amazon packing facility in Gera, Thuringia. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Bodo Schackow

The strikes at so-called “fulfilment” centres, where Amazon prepares packages before delivery, began in two locations on Monday.

The Verdi union is calling on Amazon for an “immediate” salary increase of three percent this year, followed by a further 1.7 percent next year, in line with a collective agreement for the retail sector, to which the e-commerce giant does not adhere.

Amazon could not continue to “refuse wage increases that other companies in the sector pay”, Verdi retail head Orhan Akman said in a statement Monday.

Amazon, which operates 17 centres in Germany, argues it is a logistics company, a sector in which the terms of work are considered to be less burdensome for the employer.

Amazon said it did not expect the strike to have an impact on clients.

However, a Verdi spokesman said the stoppage could cause disruption, particularly in Amazon’s rapid-delivery “Prime” offering.

Strikes were likely to continue “until the end of the year”, the spokesman said, impacting on the busy Christmas shopping period.

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Verdi, which first called for strikes at Amazon in May 2013, organised demonstrations outside the fulfilment centres on Tuesday to protest poor working conditions.

Amazon — which has seen its business boom during the coronavirus pandemic as consumers increasingly shopped online — announced in September that it would open eight new centres in Germany, creating 3,000 jobs by 2022.

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