Is Europe not working?

By Khaled Diab

The chair of a leading multinational claims that Europeans do not work hard enough and do not value work enough. I beg to differ.

7 May 2010

At a recent conference in Brussels, bigwigs from the political, , trade union and academic worlds got together to discuss ways of boosting the performance and competitiveness of European . Amid talk of , R&D, job creation and helping SMEs, one speaker caused a wave of uncomfortable murmurs to spread through the audience.

It was partly due to his aloof tone and partly his message which, though he did not say it explicitly, implied that Europeans were lazy and all too often spongers. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, the chair of Nestlé's board, claimed that Europeans were not working hard enough and had lost their .

“We have the problem of the hours people are working. If you look at the hours per capita worked in Europe, they are substantially below the rest of the world,” he explained.

Citing surveys which he said revealed that only a minority of Europeans believed hard work was a value to aspire to in contrast to a majority of Chinese, he claimed that Europe was facing a crisis of its work ethic and needed to pull itself up by its bootstraps. “Working smarter is not the solution for Europe. The only solution for Europe is working smarter and harder,” he told his bewildered audience.

Of course, assuming that Brabeck-Letmathe practises what he preaches, this would be quite understandable considering that, as a top manager, he makes millions and so may feel he owes it to his shareholders to work long hours – and he can probably afford an army of helpers to take care of all the practical aspects of his life.

However, I'm not entirely convinced of the economic and social value of Brabeck-Letmathe's assertions. Do people in countries that clock up a lot of hours actually want to work so long, does it make them more productive, how does it affect their lives and impact their societies? For example, do workers in unregulated China want to spend most of their waking hours assembling cheap goods for export?

In the , South Koreans work by far the longest hours, racking up a massive 2,300-plus hours a year per employee. So, what does this mean ? To demonstrate, allow me to introduce Lee, a civil servant at the South Korean ministry of agriculture and fisheries. He gets up at 5.30am, starts work at 8.30am and doesn't return home before 9.00pm, just in time to snore. In addition, he doesn't get to see his kids except at the weekend or on the three days of holidays he gets a year.

So, is Lee working these hours because he finds his job thrilling or he's a workaholic? No, it's because he feels insecure. “It's the culture. We always watch what the senior boss thinks of our behaviour. So it's very difficult to finish at a fixed time,” he admits.

Moreover, is this the kind of existence we Europeans want for ourselves? After all, if we, as a society, wish to use the economic gains of recent decades to have more leisure time, then we are entitled to do so. In any case, economies cannot continue to grow ad infinitum.

But to go to the bottom line, based on Brabeck-Letmathe theory, you would expect that the Europeans putting in the longest hours would be doing pretty well for themselves. So, who are Europe's hardest workers? The Germans, I hear at the back? Perhaps the Swedes? No, it's the Greeks who put in more than 2,000 hours a year – and yet their country is in financial meltdown.

And is a perfect illustration that it is not the quantity of the hours you put in that matter, but the quality. For example, Luxembourg and Norway generate about twice as much GDP per hour worked as Greece.

Those who wish to bash the European way of doing things often point out that Americans work considerably longer hours. But it is something of a paradox that, in the 1970s, the United States had a considerably higher standard of living than Europe, yet Americans worked fewer hours than Europeans. Today, the gap in living standards has narrowed considerably, yet Europeans on the whole work fewer hours.

However, even if Americans do put in the time, they don't make the most of this time compared with north-western Europeans. In fact, according to OECD figures for 2007, Luxembourg, Norway, Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France all had higher than the United States.

Contrary to what Mr Nestlé suggests, in some parts of Europe, like Belgium, the problem isn't how hard an individual works but the number of people out of work. And this has quite a lot to do with the behaviour of multinationals. At first sight, European industry seems to be in trouble. And yet labour productivity in EU manufacturing rose by more than double the rate of overall productivity (46% against under 20% between 1995 and 2007).

And what happened during those good times? Millions of jobs in industry were cut or relocated to cheaper countries – which could lead workers to the conclusion that they are the victims of their own productivity. The same trend has started in services, too, with the outsourcing phenomenon. In addition, there are fears that the forthcoming recovery in Europe could be a jobless one.

Well, how can this be? Many companies, rather than employ more people, will try to extract more bang from each of their workers – Brabeck-Letmathe's famous work ethic in action. In fact, this is already happening: with the job axe hanging by a thread over the heads of millions of workers in all sectors, many people are putting in extra hours to save their jobs.

The current recession and economic crisis is likely to reverse the gains in work-life balance which Europeans worked so hard to secure. If that occurs, it will be a huge shame.

This article appeared in the Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free section on 3 May 2010. Read the full discussion here.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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