Work less, live better – organising working time in the new economy

The international seminar “Work less, live better – organising working time in the new economy” took place between February 28th and March 2nd, 2019, in Lisbon. It was organized by CFTL – Centre for Training and Leisure, in cooperation with BASE-FUT, with the support from EZA and funding from the European Union. The seminar was attended by representatives of workers’ organizations from Lithuania, Italy, Spain, Poland, Germany and Portugal. The seminar was part of the EZA project co-ordination about “Working and living in a digitized world”.

The main objectives of the event were: to assess the current situation regarding worktime in the European Union; to analyse national and European policies in this area; to discuss the consequences of the reduction of working time for the health and safety of workers and lifework balance; to discuss the consequences of working time reduction for productivity and the success of firms. On the other hand, it was important to assess the challenges placed by the new economy – and particularly the digital platform companies – to the organizations of workers.

Paulo Caetano (president of CFTL) and Piergiorgio Sciacqua (vice-president of EZA) and Mafalda Troncho (head of the International Labour Organization office in Portugal) open the seminar on the afternoon of February 28th, with welcoming and thematic framing interventions.

Paulo Caetano discussed the main objectives of the seminar, questioning if we are not working too much, in Portugal and in other countries, and thus hurting our quality of life. Piergiorgio Sciaqcua also stressed the importance of worklife balance, while discussing some of the main challenges that Europe is currently facing, such as the visible and invisible walls being erected in Europe, Brexit and the European elections of May.

Mafalda Troncho recalled that the struggle for the reduction of worktime is historically one of the main claims of workers’ movements and was the subject of some of the earliest ILO conventions. Troncho recalled also that the regulation of worktime is one of the key conditions for decent work and continues to be a key issue today, with the spreading of the new information technologies bringing to the fore the question of the right to disconnection.

The first panel, which also took place on February 28th, was titled “Quality of Employment and reduction of worktime in the framework of the European Social Dialogue”. The panel speakers were Rainer Rissmayer, EZA project coordinator for the line “Working in a digitized world”, and Agniezka Piasna, a researcher at the European Trade Union Institute.

Agniezka Piasna presented an overall panorama of the situation regarding worktime in different countries and discussed and the impact of worktime among women workers, stressing that work less time carries substantial improvements for workers’ lives. Piasna also demonstrated that, with the current technological development level, it is possible to work less, with higher quality and with a fairer distribution of work.

Rainer Rissmayer talked about the conclusions of the previous seminars of this line, recalling several questions raised by the digitization of the economy, such as the difficulties being felt in measuring actual worktime, establishing clear work schedules and guaranteeing the right to disconnection.

In the morning of March, 1st, the seminar continued with a round table, titled “Are we working too much? The flexibility of worktime in the European space.”. The speakers for this round table were Jesus Gonzalo Casado, from CEAT (the Spanish Centre for Workers’ Affairs); Javier Iglesias, from USO (Spanish Workers Union) and José Paixão from LOC/MTCC (Catholic Workers League/Movement of Christian Workers, from Portugal).

While coming from different social and trade union experiences, these three speakers stressed the importance of the reduction of worktime in Europe and in each one’s country, showing the advantage of balanced work schedules. These speakers stressed that it is a key issue to reduce the worktime without wage reductions. Perspectives for workers in the new economy are grim should there not be adequate European and national regulation of important aspects in labour relations, such as worktime, social protection and taxation.

In the afternoon of March 1st, the seminar participants visited the Port of Setubal, where they were received by representatives of the Board of Administration of the Ports of Setúbal and Sesimbra. The latter made a short presentation about the Port of Setúbal and took questions on the port activities and their importance for the national and international economies, as well as the recent industrial disputes between the companies that operate the port activities and the dockers’ trade unions. Participants then visited some of the Port areas and observed the functioning of several terminals.

In the morning of March 2nd, the seminar proceeded with the second panel, titled “Challenges of the platform economy and worktime”. The speakers were Fátima Almeida, co-president of the World Movement of Christian Workers and Laura Estevez, from USO.

Both interventions – as well as the ensuing debate – focussed on the difficulties that workers organizations are experiencing to unionize workers of digital platforms. Platforms want to enshrine an individualize labour relation with these workers, treating the latter as independent workers. There have been some initiatives to integrate these workers in trade unions and labour courts in some countries have already recognized that they have a true subordinate relation with their employers. Workers organizations will have to find creative ways to make these workers the main actors in their struggles.

The third panel of the seminar took place in the afternoon of March 2nd. It was titled “The reduction of worktime in the public and private sectors”. Speakers for the panel were Ana Avoila, coordinator of the Portuguese National Federation of Public Sector Workers and João Lourenço, a former representative of the Steelworkers Trade Union. João Lourenço replaced Isabel Tavares and Manuel Freitas, trade unionists from the textile sector who were unable to attend the seminar due to last minute impediments.

The speakers discussed the situation in the public sector, where the 35 weekly hours of work were reinstated in 2016 and also the struggles in the private sector during the 1990s, to guarantee the 40 weekly hours of work.

Both speakers agreed that the trade unions have a decisive role in mobilizing workers to the cause of reducing work time without reduction in wages, which is justified by the increases in productivity resulting from the digitalization and robotization of economy.

The seminar ended with the presentation of the conclusions and with closing remarks made by Pedro Estêvão, national coordinatior of BASE-FUT, and Maria Reina, vice-president of EZA.


The reduction of worktime has been the issue of some of the oldest struggles of workers, with the celebration of the First of May, a highly symbolic date for the workers’ movements, being a testament to that. To the inhuman working hours that workers had to endure in the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution, 19th century trade unionists counterposed with a clear motto: “eight hours to work, eight hours to rest, eight hours to live”.

Their struggle was not in vain. The reduction of worktime was one of the biggest successes of European working movements during the 20th century. Between 1900 and 1930 alone, average worktime fell from about 65 hours a week to little more than 45. This trend continued after World War II and up to the 1970s, leading many to believe that continuing reduction of worktime was an inevitability.

This, however, did not happen. Since the beginning of the 1980s, the average worktime of full-time employed European workers has stagnated close to 40 hours a week. And, if total work hours did continue to decline, this is due almost completely to the growth of part-time employment, which is strongly associated to precarity and underemployment. During this time, the subject of worktime reduction gradually disappeared from political agenda and public discussions.

And yet, worktime remains a key element both for workers’ quality of life and for the cohesion and development of our societies. The need for regulation of worktime reflects the delicate balance between the different spheres of our lives – family, professional, civic and cultural – from which we derive realization as human beings. As such, it is easy to understand how excessive working hours disrupts this balance, worsening the physical and mental health of workers, increasing tensions in their family lives and hindering political and civic participation.

During the seminar, it was recognized that the acceleration of technological development in the last few decades has posed serious challenges to the regulation of worktime. New information and communication technologies have been used to blur the border between work and private life, fostering the idea that workers must be available at their employers’ whims. This has resulted in a non-recognized - but very real - increase in actual worktime and the consequent increase in the amount of non-paid work. At the same time, the precarization of work stemming from the digital and platform economy also manifests itself in effective increasing of worktime.

But technological development alone does not explain the persistent challenges we have witnessed to the regulation of worktime. These challenges are also rooted in culture and ideology. The hegemony of individualistic discourses – of which some uncritical versions of entrepreneurship narratives are a clear example – help to create a highly biased vision of the effects of worktime deregulation, which systematic plays down its costs for workers. Speakers at this seminar presented strong data, suggesting that forms of flexibilization of worktime in Europe have been designed and carried out having almost exclusively in mind the imperatives and needs of employers.

This makes us question the inevitability of the relation between technological development and the intensification of the exploitation of work. It is true that such has been the reality of the last four decades, as it was on the first century after the industrial revolution. But that has not always been the case. In fact, the overall reduction of worktime in Europe that took place until the 1980s was also made possible because of technological development and the enormous increases in productivity that it allowed.

The real question is then how to distribute the gains of technological development. And these gains can be measured not only in terms of income but also in terms of time. If this is the case, then the stagnation of worktime in the past forty years is a symptom – alongside the stagnation of wages – of a wider problem of weakening of the trade union movement and of its capacity to force a fair distribution of said gains.

The reduction of worktime is and should be a key subject of collective bargaining. In this sense, we must account for three questions: what to negotiate; how to increase negotiation strength; and how to guarantee the implementation of what is agreed.

Regarding the first question, worktime reduction cannot be seen in isolation. Effective promotion of worktime reduction must consider work in all its dimensions. That is why the definition of decent work proposed by the International Labour Organization is so useful. It stresses the centrality of worktime for decent work but intertwines it with other crucial elements such as fair wages, work intensity and health and safety. It will be of little use if the reduction of worktime is achieved by increasing the rate of exploitation of work in the remaining work hours. And it will be difficult to gather the support of workers for worktime reduction if this reduction were to imply the reduction of already low wages. It is thus necessary to build creative solutions, which can articulate the different dimensions of decent work. Only then will we be able to raise the support of workers and of the public opinion to the cause of trade unions in this issue.

The second question deals with the negotiation strength of workers’ movements. It is of paramount importance to raise the awareness of the benefits brought by the reduction of work – even for companies themselves. This can be made by emphasizing how shorter working hours increase productivity and the outcome of work, that the violation of norms regarding worktime are a form of unfair competition or that worktime reduction can be an important tool to reduce workers’ absenteeism.

On the other hand, we need to make of a realistic assessment of the social and economic context, recognizing that it poses risks but also offers opportunities. The challenges to worktime regulation and worktime reduction were amply discussed during the seminar. Workers are far more isolated and vulnerable in platform economies. Employers have at their disposal – and implement – increasingly tight surveillance methods over their workers.  Multinational corporations are able to impose a race to the bottom between states in terms of labour laws, under the threat of delocalization. And have shown no qualms in illegally using employees from one country to undermine strikes and protests of employees in another country.

These difficulties are very real, and it would be foolish to underestimate them. But we must also appreciate the opportunities that the new (and old) technologies of information and communication offer us. These technologies can play a pivotal role in the creation and development of solid national and international solidarity networks in favour of workers’ rights. They can also be a powerful tool for bypassing of mainstream media biases against unions and their underreporting of labour and industrial conflicts – for instance, through creative social media campaigns of public denunciation and shaming of employers that systematically violate workers’ rights.

Finally, we have the question of how to implement the outcomes of negotiation. This is an illustration of the benefits of collective bargaining. Collective binding sectorial agreements are themselves a particularly effective way to counter the isolation and high turnover of workers in several economic sectors of the new economy.

The reduction of worktime is and must continue to be a central issue for workers’ movements. Its achievement is paramount for a society in which decent work is the norm. Shorter working hours are crucial for a healthier balance between the different spheres of life which we are part of. On this balance hinges our fulfilment as human beings. It is undeniable that work is an important element in this fulfilment. But so are our family lives and our ability to participate, politically and civically, in our societies and to give our contribution to the common good. The reduction of worktime is a thus a condition not only for increasing the well-being and happiness of European workers but also a key step towards the strengthening and deepening of democracy in Europe.