Commentary

Slackers for freedom

French workers at a car components factory owned by Bosch on Monday dealt a blow to the country’s law limiting the working week to 35 hours, as they unilaterally accepted demands from the private German automotive group to work longer for the same pay. The near-unanimity of the vote at Bosch’s VÃ?nissieux plant near Lyon is expected to encourage other companies to seek ways of securing greater flexibility in Europe’s rigid labour markets, in the absence of political will for reform. The vote was the first of its kind in France and could set a precedent for a gradual de facto reversal of the 35-hour week. Only 2 per cent of Bosch’s 820 workers refused to amend their contracts to allow themselves to work 36 hours. Jacques Chirac, the French president, and his centre-right government have been struggling to regain control of a corporate trend that is growing in political importance across continental Europe. In Germany, moves to extend working hours could become unstoppable. Siemens had said it would otherwise shift production to Hungary – a threat that Nicolas Sarkozy, French finance minister, described as “a form of extortion that would be unthinkable over here”. Other big companies seeking longer working hours in Germany include MAN, Linde, Bosch and Opel. This really does speak to the rigidity of France’s labor laws. Such a big stink is made over working ONE more hour? Often skeptics see the market as a process in which participants gain wealth but lose the time to enjoy it. Laws that limit workweeks would seem to force people to enjoy the fruits of their labor. But there’s another route to free time: efficiency gains. American workers now have the kind of short workweeks that other nations have tried to get via regulation. 1948 was the last time Americans averaged a 40-hour workweek. Today the American workweek is about 34 hours long. In other words, there’s a strong slacker case to be made for markets.

Ted Balaker is an award-winning filmmaker, journalist, and founding partner of Korchula Productions, a film and new media production company devoted to making important ideas entertaining.