Letter: Shorter working time is the answer for Europe

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The Independent Online
Sir: On Friday, the heads of European Union governments will meet in Brussels to discuss 'growth, competitiveness and employment'. The British government has published a paper drawn up by the Department of Employment and the Treasury.

Astonishingly, the Government maintains that new, unprecedented levels of unemployment in Europe are 'evidence of inflexibility in, and over-regulation of, labour markets. These factors deter the employers from taking on new employees, and damage job creation.' But no one has deregulated with greater zest than the British government. Every protection for the lowest paid work people has been annulled.

A group of Labour MEPs has made a detailed analysis of the Government's Green Paper. It shows that, since 1979, the number of men in full-time employment in the UK has fallen by over 2.9 million. This has been partly compensated by the fact that 400,000 men, and 1 million women have found part-time jobs. But the overall loss of jobs in full-time equivalents is over 2.2 million.

At a recent meeting of finance ministers, Kenneth Clarke mistakenly attributed to his opponents the idea that 'there is a limited, fixed quantity of work to go round'. In fact, the British Conservative government has presided over an actual reduction in the amount of work there is.

The problem we have to face, all over Europe, is that productivity has been rising at a faster rate than the market has been expanding. So, unless a serious redistribution of resources enlarges the market, the situation will only get worse. One of the most effective redistributive mechanisms is to shorten working time.

Shorter working time may mean less hours in the working day, or less days in the working week. It may also entail longer holidays and earlier retirement. But the highest priority needs to be given to paid educational leave, and training and retraining programmes at work.

Deregulation is much more likely to lose jobs than to create them, while making working conditions less and less tolerable for those that do remain in work. The key to the abolition of mass unemployment is the reduction of working time.

Yours sincerely,

KEN COATES

MEP for Nottingham

(Lab)

Brussels

3 December

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