Reducing working hours? No Entry!

Reducing working hours? No Entry!

Agora #90

Limiting working hours has been a constant demand of trade unions. It is part of a continuous historical flow.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution, shorter working hours have been synonymous with social progress. Limiting working hours has been a constant demand of trade unions. It is part of a continuous historical flow: from a maximum of 48 hours set in ILO Convention No. 1 (1919) to a legal working week of 35 hours in France (1998).

For employees, the aim is to achieve a better work-life balance, but limiting working time is also in the employer’s best interests, to keep workers productive and efficient. Furthermore, it may well serve the goal of combating unemployment by sharing work (“Work less for everyone to work”).

Europe: the past era of social progress

European Directive 93/104/EC, based on the EC Treaty, which had the stated aim to “promote improved working conditions and an improved standard of living for workers, so as to make possible their harmonisation while the improvement is being maintained” (Article 117 of the EC Treaty, see currently Article 151 of the TFEU), lays down minimum requirements:

“This Directive shall not affect Member States’ right to apply or introduce laws, regulations or administrative provisions more favourable to the protection of the safety and health of workers or to facilitate or permit the application of collective agreements or agreements concluded between the two sides of industry which are more favourable to the protection of the safety and health of workers”.

Working hours in the European institutions

In the field of social policy, higher-ranking legal instruments lay down “minimum requirements(and maximum working time is one of them), while allowing for lower-ranking instruments to implement them in a more favourable sense.

Thus, the original Staff Regulations of officials of the institutions (adopted in 1961) set a maximum working week of 45 hours. Within this limit, the Staff Regulations left it up to each institution to set the working hours applicable.

In 1972, the maximum provided for in the Staff Regulations (Article 55) was reduced to 42 hours. In 1988, the European institutions all took internal decisions to reduce the working week from 38.5 to 37.5 hours. We would never have imagined that that achievement would be reversed.

Europe: Time for social regression

However, this ‘acquis’ was not destined to last. The financial crisis triggered by the banks and financial markets since 2008 led to a loss of income for working people, pensioners and large layers of the population.

A few years after the major reform of the Staff Regulations (which came into force on 1-5-2004), a new reform process was launched, in June 2011. This time, an austerity cure was proudly presented as an expression of the EU’s ‘solidarity’ with its Member States, which were also affected by the crisis.

Longer working hours

The Commission launched its attack (2011) by announcing its intention to increase the weekly working hours.

The meandering reasoning for this increase is set out in recital 22 of Regulation 1023/2013 amending the Staff Regulations, as follows:

“Working hours in the institutions should be aligned with those in force in certain[1] Member States of the European Union in order to compensate for the reduction in staff in these institutions. This alignment should take account of the working hours in force in the civil services of the Member States. The introduction of a minimum working week will ensure that the staff employed by the institutions are able to cope with the workload resulting from the European Union’s policy objectives and, at the same time, harmonise working conditions in the institutions, in the interests of solidarity throughout the Union’s civil service.”

However, apart from this brilliant reasoning, what tarnishes our Staff Regulations is the very fact of setting minimum working hours (Article 55(2) of the Staff Regulations):

“The normal working week shall range from 40 to 42 hours, the hours of the working day to be determined by the appointing authority.”

In fact, this was a way of forcefully aligning all institutions on the minimum of 40 hours per week.

Setting minimum working hours runs counter to established social policy practice. ‘Progress’, still mentioned in the Treaty, became meaningless when the Staff Regulations promotes social regression.

Under these circumstances, any debate on reducing and reshaping working hours will be of a purely theoretical value. No social progress is conceivable as long as minimum weekly hours are not just wiped out of the Staff Regulations. Which in turn would necessitate taking the big risk of a Staff Regulations’ reform.


[1]     In fact, according to 2022 data collected by Eurostat, civil servants in 13 EU countries work 40 hours per week. In one country (DE), they work 40,5 hours. In 13 countries, they work less than 40. The EU27 average weekly working hours are 38.5.

Reducing working days?

The question of concentrating the working week on four days is widely debated.  While noting that, for the foreseeable future, any discussion on this issue will be purely theoretical, we can set out some thoughts here.

Article 2 of the ILO Convention No. 1 (1919) sets a maximum duration not only per week, but also per day: “The working hours of persons employed in any public or private industrial undertaking […] shall not exceed eight in the day and forty-eight in the week.

This standard is always meaningful. Indeed, working long hours leads to fatigue, loss of concentration and a drop in productivity.

In addition, many colleagues, especially women, work part-time (and on reduced pay) to meet their day-to-day family commitments (dropping off and picking up children, etc.). What would people subject to inelastic constraints do if their daily working hours were extended? They would apply for further reducing their working hours by giving up an additional slice of their pay.

Working four days a week would only be defensible if the working week were reduced to 32 hours.

Vassilis SKLIAS

About The Author

Vassilis Sklias is a member of Executive Committe USF as well as a member of EPSU -CJ trade union