Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

Work Time Regimes in Europe: Can Flexibility and Gender Equity Coexist?

Academic journal article Journal of Economic Issues

Work Time Regimes in Europe: Can Flexibility and Gender Equity Coexist?

Article excerpt

The regulation of working hours through legislation and collective bargaining became standard practice throughout Europe during the postwar period. This led to a stable workweek, generally forty hours or slightly higher. Yet many of the seemingly stable institutional arrangements of postwar capitalism--Keynesian stabilization policies and welfare state provisions, among others--have been unraveled through a series of neoliberal economic policies. A discourse of flexibility has bolstered a resurgence of market mechanisms, especially in labor markets. Flexible work hours are part of this larger trend in the global political economy (Bosch, Dawkins, and Michon 1993; ILO 1995; Figart and Golden 1998; Perrons 1998). The concept of a forty-hour norm is being replaced by the idea that work schedules should accommodate demand fluctuations and managerial strategies.

The European Union (EU) has instituted policy initiatives to facilitate this shift toward flexible work time in member countries. Specifically, the Council of the European Union adopted a directive "concerning certain aspects of the organization of working time" on November 23, 1993. The Working Time Directive establishes health and safety standards for working time: minimum periods of daily rest, weekly rest, annual leave, and breaks, as well as maximum weekly working time. One aspect of the directive is the "annualization" of hours. An employee's weekly hours must add up to a national standard that is no more than 48 hours, but this can be averaged over a longer time frame than one week. [1] Implementation of the directive is the responsibility of individual states whose laws and regulations must meet or exceed the standards set by the EU.

Our thesis is that changes in the social organization of time spent in paid labor have important implications for gender relations. The methodological approach we utilize highlights the institutional and cultural factors that contribute to specific work time practices. Rather than a unidirectional causality between work time practices and gender equity, we are suggesting that gender relations and the social organization of work time interact to produce clusters of institutional characteristics. We identify distinct approaches to the social organization of work time among the member states of the European Union; these approaches incorporate alternative ways of organizing gender. For example, the forty-hour workweek was predicated on a vision of full-time workers that reflected male norms--a breadwinner with few responsibilities for social reproduction. By providing alternatives to this male model of work time, flexible work hours have the potential to redefine social norms to incorporate women's experience an d foster gender equity. Unfortunately, flexibilization policies frequently have been instituted in ways that reproduce, rather than reduce, gender inequity. Instead, we find that gender equity is generally higher in European countries that have concentrated on reductions in the standard workweek rather than increasing flexibility.

The ensuing section explicates the theoretical framework used to develop our Work Time Regimes. Next, we constitute Work Time Regimes according to their flexibility and gender equity. Three dimensions of flexibility are considered: a higher incidence of part-time employment, the normalization of long-hours jobs, and fewer employees working a "standard" workweek (defined as the mode of usual weekly hours). Outside the scope of this study are other flexible work time policies such as compressed workweeks, flexitime policies, or shift work and other nonsocial hours. This is followed by an empirical evaluation of work time practices in European countries and the extent to which they conform to our Work Time Regimes. We conclude with implications for work time policies in the United States.

Frameworks for Comparative Research on Work Time

Recent research has highlighted the limitations of universalist approaches to explicating the trends and conditions of part-time work and other work time practices (see, for example, O'Reilly and Fagan 1998). …

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