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Debate: Maximum weekly working hours

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Should there be a legally mandated ceiling on weekly working hours?

Background and context

There has long been a debate about what is the optimal working week. The European Working Time Directive has changed the nature of this debate in Europe, and many countries such as France actively curb working hours (while the U.K. has not fully implemented the Directive). Elsewhere in the world, for example Asia, the trend to long working hours continues to grow. The U.S. has historically been ambivalent on this issue, most famously in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Lochner v. New York.[1]

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Reducing unemployment? - Would a maximum working hour ceiling reduce unemployment?

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Yes

  • Introducing a cap on working hours would reduce unemployment. Because some workers currently work more than would be allowed after the introduction of such a rule, afterwards there would be a need to recruit new workers to do the work which was formerly done by workers in their “additional” hours.[2]


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No

  • Employers would find an alternative to hiring more workers. The idea that reducing working hours will create jobs is part of the "lump of labour" fallacy and does not stand up to scrutiny, either in economic theory or in practice. Rather than hiring more employees in response to the changed working hours, either companies will seek to drive down real wages or overall economic activity will be reduced.[3]
  • Unless competing economies implement similar rules, any restrictions on economic production may simply encourage the relocation of that production to an economy that is not encumbered with the same rules. This would be exacerbated by the fact that these less-regulated economies would be touting their low regulatory environment as a positive advantage in a bid to attract inward investment.[4]


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Benefiting workers? - Does a ceiling on weekly working hours benefit workers?

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Yes

  • A maximum working week provides protection for workers. At the moment, many workers feel pressure, and indeed may well be pressured, to work longer hours or more days than they want to, because their job security and livelihood can depend on their willingness to meet managerial demands. They would welcome a reduced working week but are in a poor position even to ask for it. Many workers (especially unskilled or semi-skilled ones) lack negotiating power with their employer since, in the capitalist system, they are essentially transferable units of labour. Government therefore has a moral legitimacy in acting on workers’ behalf to protect their generic interests, and the right not to be forced to work long hours is a good example of this.[5]
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No

  • State regulation of working hours is an intrusion on an the worker's private freedom: The employer-worker contract is an example of private contracting. The worker has the right to deploy his labour as he sees fit, independently of state regulation (N.B. a modified version of this argument may be needed to defend against the fact that almost all states regulate some workplace practices). For self-employed workers, there is no good reason for the government to dictate how long they can work: this is a matter for them, as the work will be for their own benefit. Self-employed work is often very intensive, for example at the start of a business, and so a maximum working week would act as a brake on entrepreneurial activity.[6]


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Worker's wages - Would workers' wages and incomes benefit from a cap on working weeks?

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Yes

  • It could pressure an increase in the minimum wage: A maximum working week could well involve re-evaluating any minimum wage in place, as it would likely need to increase if the new rules meant a fall in hours worked by large numbers of workers.[7] This tangential benefit would clearly be in workers’ interests.


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No

  • Many workers can't afford to work fewer hours for less overall income: Many workers work long hours because they need to do so to make financial ends meet. A maximum working week is a luxury that they cannot afford. This is of especial note because many such workers will be people who are already near the poverty line.[8]
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Economic effects - Would a maximum working week benefit an economy overall?

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Yes

  • A maximum working week would improve productivity. Inevitably there are some inefficiencies in any economic process. Although a maximum working week would not remove all these, the event of its introduction and the fact that it would focus people’s minds on tangible achievements within a limited working time would improve productivity. It is worth noting that French workers (already subject to a 35 hour maximum week) are significantly more productive than their unrestricted UK counterparts. Such rules also affirm the role of business as a socially beneficial partnership that respects workers rather than as an exploitative system which takes advantage of them. This would provide a positive affirmation of the social element of business as well as boosting productivity through more cooperation between management and workforce.[9]
  • A maximum working week would improve the quality of work done. If workers worked shorter hours or fewer days, when they did work they would likely be more alert and make fewer mistakes. This would significantly reduce the “Friday afternoon” syndrome of sloppy (and sometimes dangerous) work resulting from workers’ tiredness. By capping the amount of time they spend in the workplace, workers would be given better opportunities to develop their professional or personal interests outside it. This should result in a better educated, healthier, more rounded and hence more globally competitive workforce.[10]


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No

  • Many business have the same fixed costs regardless of the hours worked. A maximum working week would be economically damaging, since it would either force them to spread these fixed costs less efficiently across a smaller output, or in order to retain their output they would need to increase their workforce and so labour costs. This would particularly affect small businesses, again stifling entrepreneurial activity. A fixed maximum also reduces business flexibility. Even if employers do not habitually use their workers for overly long periods, it can be beneficial for them to retain the capacity to do so when needed, e.g. if a large customer order needs to be filled in a short time.[11]


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Practicality and enforceability - Is a maximum work week practical as well as enforceable?

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Yes

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No

  • Some jobs simply cannot be done within a defined time framework Certain jobs involve a prolonged time at sea or a process which once started must be completed in full.[12]
  • It is difficult and expensive to monitor compliance with a maximum working week and punish non-compliance: This is especially so where both employer and worker favour a longer working week and so it is mutually beneficial to disguise the extra hours worked from the governmental authorities. These enforcement difficulties would encourage the black labour market.[13]
  • There are people who wish to work more than required because of their economic needs. These workers will simply be forced to move the marginal element of their working practices into the invisible sector. This is undesirable for several reasons: as well as criminalising otherwise law-abiding citizens, it removes them from the protection of health and safety regulations, and deprives the government of tax revenue.[14]


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Pro/con resources

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Yes


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No

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See also

External links and resources

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