Commentary: The Lazy Men of Europe No More?

Germany and France are showing welcome signs of working harder

Germans work only 34 hours a week by some reckonings, but apparently Kai Thiele never got the memo. The 38-year-old Munich resident typically arrives at the office at 7:30 a.m. and leaves around 9:30 p.m. Thiele often spends weekends recruiting people for his temporary-employment and personnel search service, World of Staff.

What about those European five-week vacations? Thiele is planning a single week in the fall -- and has already checked to make sure he can hook up his laptop to the Web while attending a yoga retreat in Greece. What's more, Thiele says his workers, who supply clerical and administrative help to clients such as insurance companies, don't complain about putting in extra hours when customers require it. "They work their butts off," Thiele says. "They're happy to have a job."

Throw out those stereotypes about inflexible German workers and the wimpy hours they clock. Thiele and his crew aren't the only Germans willing to put in longer hours in exchange for a job -- or job security. Some economists calculate that German work hours, which are typically regulated by agreements between companies and unions, have been quietly creeping upward since the late 1990s. "German competitiveness is actually very good," says Steffen Lehndorff, research director at the Institute for Labor & Technology in Gelsenkirchen, who argues that 40 hours is already the rule among full-time employees.

The trend has been masked by a rise in people working part-time, which drags down the average. When part-timers are factored out, Germans score in the middle of the European pack, working more than the much-admired Finns, though still 200 hours a year less than the British. The French finish near the bottom by almost any count.

But now there are signs the pendulum is beginning to swing the other way, even in leisurely France. Maybe this is how reform will finally come to Europe's two most reform-resistant economies. As the politicians dither, employers and workers find creative ways to free up the labor market. While it remains difficult and costly to fire people in both countries, longer working hours would help make Germany and France more competitive with lower-wage countries.

The trend probably began in East Germany, where workers agreed to put in more time to compensate for lower productivity. Employees at Infineon Technologies (IFX ) in Dresden put in 40 hours a week, helping the semiconductor maker keep pace with Asian rivals. Now workers in the west are being asked to punch out later. Deutsche Bahn, the German railroad, announced in May it will negotiate with unions to raise annual working hours by about 2 1/2 workweeks, without extra pay. Even bureaucrats are working more. North Rhine-Westphalia and Bavaria have hiked officials' workweeks to 41 hours or more, up from 38.5.

In France, the legally mandated 35-hour workweek prevents such ad hoc arrangements. But momentum is building for increasing the hours. In 2002 the government pushed through an amendment exempting very small businesses. Now, Nicolas Sarkozy, the popular new Finance Minister, says workers should be allowed to choose whether they want to work extra hours for more money.

After a decade of tepid growth and double-digit unemployment rates, it's obvious the French and Germans need to do more to compete. Longer working hours are a simple and effective solution. For employers, a longer workweek without a corresponding pay raise amounts to a decline in hourly wage costs. It helps manufacturers make better use of capacity. "It's a bearable way to reduce labor costs," says Christoph Schröder, an economist at the Cologne Institute of German Economics. He estimates that if everyone worked only one hour a week extra, German growth would hit 3% in 2004, double current projections.

The surprising thing is that many Germans seem to agree, suggesting that they could be more amenable to reform than the politicians give them credit for. According to the BAT Institute for leisure-time research in Hamburg, which is funded by British American Tobacco, almost a quarter of Germans surveyed in 2003 said they would work up to 10 hours a day if it meant more pay. Even the IG Metall steelworkers union, known for its militancy, has agreed that companies may increase the workweek from 35 hours if there is a shortage of skilled workers. Leisure-loving Europeans? They're still there. But job-loving Europeans are on the rise.

By Jack EwingWith Carol Matlack in Paris

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