Spotlight on working time

Nearly a century after adopting its first international standard on working time, a new ILO study estimates that one in five workers around the world – or over 600 million persons – are still working more than 48 hours a week, often merely to make ends meet.

GENEVA – According to a new ILO study, Working time around the world: Trends in working hours, laws and policies in a global comparative perspective (See note 1), an estimated 22 per cent of the global workforce, or 614.2 million workers, are working “excessively” long hours. At the same time, many short-hours workers in developing and transition countries may be underemployed and thus more likely to fall into poverty.

This groundbreaking study of over 50 countries reviews global working time issues – including national laws and policies, trends in actual working hours, the specific experiences of different economic sectors and different types of workers, as well as the implications for future policies relating to working time. The report is the first-ever global comparative analysis of national laws, policies, and actual working hours which is focused on developing and transition countries.

“The good news is that progress has been made in regulating normal working hours in developing and transition countries, but overall the findings of this study are definitely worrying, especially the prevalence of excessively long hours,” says Jon C. Messenger, Senior Research Officer for the ILO’s Conditions of Work and Employment Programme and a co-author of the study.

Among 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 (in the year 2000), and Pakistan at 44.4 per cent. At the other end of the spectrum, developed countries such as Norway, the Netherlands and France, as well as transition economies such as Hungary and Estonia, reported the lowest incidence of long hours.

Gender and age appear to be important factors in determining working hours. Despite women’s increased participation in paid labour, there is a clear “gender gap” in working hours worldwide: men tend to work long hours, while women are far more likely to work short hours (less than 35 per week). Women’s availability for paid work appears to be constrained by the time they devote to their household/domestic responsibilities. They continue to bear the primary responsibility for “unpaid” work in households and providing care for family members, not only children but also the elderly and individuals suffering from diseases such as HIV/AIDS. Among married couples with children, men’s paid working hours tend to increase while women’s paid working hours decrease. For example, in Hungary the presence of children in the family resulted in men working 13 to 19 per cent longer than women, and this increased with more children in the family. In Malaysia, an estimated 23 per cent of women stopped paid work altogether due to childcare reasons.

Age is a less powerful but nonetheless important factor in shaping working hours. Both younger and retirement-age workers appear to work slightly shorter hours than prime-age workers, often reflecting the insufficient employment opportunities for these former groups. Working hours were also found to be substantially lower for the oldest age group (65 years or older).

“Tertiarization” – that is, the expanding service sector – and informal employment, two of the hallmarks of today’s global economy, are also major sources of longer working hours. Working hours in the services sector and its subsectors tend to be the most varied, and these hours are particularly long in industries such as wholesale and retail trade, hotels and restaurants, and transport, storage and communications, all of which also commonly involve shift work and “unsocial” hours. For instance, in Mexico a higher proportion of workers spend more than 48 hours per week on the job in the wholesale and retail trade than any other industry. And in the security industry, which has among the longest legal hours of any industry, working hours in countries such as Jamaica have been estimated at 72 hours per week.

Informal employment provides at least half of total employment in all regions of the developing world, with about three-fifths of it consisting of self-employment. The distribution of working hours is highly diverse, with some people working very long hours, while others are actually working short hours. As noted, gender seems to be key: while self-employed men are likely to work either very long or very short hours (the latter mostly due to underemployment), short hours are clearly the rule for self-employed women. It appears that these women are using self-employment to realize reduced hours, which they cannot obtain in the formal economy, in order to earn some money while simultaneously carrying out their family responsibilities.

Attempts to reduce hours in developing countries have been unsuccessful for various reasons, including the need of workers to work long hours simply to make ends meet, and the widespread use of overtime by employers in an effort to increase their enterprises’ output under conditions of low productivity. While promotion of working time flexibility is often proposed as an alternative to long working hours in policy documents, these measures are not much used in practice in these countries. Laws and policies on working time have a limited influence on actual working hours in developing economies, especially in terms of maximum weekly hours, overtime payments, and their effect on hours worked in informal employment.

Decent working time: five criteria

The framework for promoting decent work in the area of working time, which was originally developed in an earlier ILO study focused on industrialized countries (See note 2), is both grounded in ILO standards and complemented by available research. It proposes that decent working time arrangements need to fulfil five inter-connected criteria: they should preserve health and safety; be “family friendly”; promote gender equality; enhance productivity; and facilitate worker choice and influence over working hours. Working time around the world applies this broad framework to developing and transition countries, taking into account their different realities.

Healthy working time

Preserving workers’ health and workplace safety is a basic goal of working time policies. Reducing long working hours lessens the risk of occupational injuries and illnesses, and their associated costs to workers, employers, and society as a whole. Laws and regulations that establish limits on working hours, such as the 48-hour limits in the Hours of Work Conventions, Nos. 1 and 30, and the 40-hour limit in the Forty-Hour Week Convention (No. 47), are a necessary minimum condition for restraining excessively long hours of work. But as legal limits alone are unlikely to be sufficient, there also needs to be a credible enforcement mechanism, such as the labour inspectorate, as well as compliance with the established “norms” among enterprises.

Long working hours and overtime work are often used to compensate workers for low wages in developing and transition economies. Attention to wage policies, and in particular to minimum wages, can thus make an important contribution towards breaking the vicious circle of low pay and long hours.

“Family-friendly” working time

The reconciliation of work and family life needs to be a prominent concern of economic and social policies in countries at all levels of development. Preserving sufficient time to combine paid work with family and domestic obligations, such as childcare and elder care, should be an integral element of these policies. Flexi-time, emergency family leave, and part-time work are all measures that can be adapted to national circumstances.

At the same time, many less developed countries also need different measures from those in the industrialized world, such as ensuring accessible transport and water supplies, and investment in labour-saving domestic technologies.

Gender equality through working time

In designing any work-family reconciliation measures, it is vital to analyse their impact on gender equality by taking into account women’s disproportionate responsibility for caring and domestic obligations, while avoiding the assumption that these concerns only apply to women.

The promotion of part-time work as a work-family measure is an important issue in this regard. The flexibility to combine paid labour with non-market work is one reason why informal work is so favoured by women. In the formal sector of developing economies part-time work is still relatively rare, mostly due to the low wage levels which make it infeasible for most workers. Moreover, the experience of industrialized countries suggests that the provision of part-time employment alone is not sufficient, and that there is also a need for the availability of high-quality part-time positions across all jobs and occupations, as well as allowing for smooth transitions between shorter and longer hours.

The measures used to attain these goals will be shaped by local institutions and traditions, but can be informed by the principles and measures found in the ILO’s Part-Time Work Convention, 1999 (No. 175). Further gender equality initiatives in areas such as hiring, wages and benefits, and career development are also needed.

Productive working time

Excessive hours tend to be not only unhealthy and unsafe, but unproductive as well. Reasonable statutory hours limits can provide an incentive for firms to modernize their working time arrangements and to invest in improving their equipment and technology and in enhancing the skills of their workforce. But as long working hours and low wages are often linked, efforts to reduce working hours, if carried out without addressing low wages, can easily result in avoidance of the law and/or an increase in multiple job-holding among workers. Improved productivity should go hand in hand with reduced working hours and higher hourly wages. It is therefore necessary to encourage and assist enterprises to improve their productivity through providing workplace training to both managers and workers, including on how to improve the planning and management of working time and workloads.

Choice and influence over working time

Reductions in working hours can play a role in advancing the influence workers have on their schedules by allowing them a greater degree of choice over how they divide their time. Working time flexibility measures need to be tailored towards balancing flexibility with protection, through means like absolute maximums on the hours worked per week, advance notice periods, and measures towards individual influence, such as the right to refuse to work on traditional rest days. Some individual choice measures are already in operation in developing economies, although they only appear in a few countries and firms. The vast majority of governments and enterprises could introduce simple individual choice techniques, such as rights to notice of when overtime will be required; choice regarding whether and when to work overtime hours (“voluntary overtime”); consultation on starting and finishing times; and even flexi-time schemes.

In crafting appropriate working time policies, the needs and circumstances of the country in which they will be implemented must be taken into account, including its level of development, industrial relations and legal systems, and cultural and social traditions. Also, it is clear that, rather than a deregulatory approach towards working hours, strong regulation that is widely enforced and observed is necessary as the basic framework within which working hours are arranged in developing and transition economies. Finally, there is a great need for social dialogue to permit workers’ needs and preferences to be heard and acted on, to enhance firms’ productivity, and to allow workers and employers to work together towards realizing high-skill, high-quality firms and economies.

Note 1 Working time around the world: Trends in working hours, laws and policies in a global comparative perspective, by Sangheon Lee, Deirdre McCann and Jon C. Messenger, Routledge, London and ILO, Geneva, 2007.

Note 2 Working time and workers’ preferences in industrialized countries: Finding the balance, edited by Jon C. Messenger, 2004; reprinted ILO, Geneva, 2007.