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Is Italy working more than other countries?


Pagella Politica, Italy

3 May 2019, Updated: 3 May 2019

Is Italy working more than other countries?CC-BY-SA Wikimedia/Phil Whitehouse

Is there really such a difference between working hours in Italy and other large European countries? We checked.

On April 11 the Italian State Secretary for Labour Claudio Cominardi (M5S) wrote on Facebook that Italians work about 1,800 hours per year, while people in France and Germany work 240 and 350 fewer hours, respectively. Meanwhile, Cominardi notes that these two countries have lower levels of unemployment, before adding that the reduction of working hours in Italy is an “extremely serious issue”. “We are working about 1,800 hours a year, and only Greece is doing worse. In France they work around 240 hours less, in Germany 350. [...] Those countries have a lower unemployment rate than we do”, he said.

Is there really such a difference between working hours in Italy and other large European countries? We checked.

How many hours do Italians work each year?

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in Italy in 2017 the annual hours worked per worker were 1,723 on average, as opposed to 1,514 hours in France, and 1,356 hours in Germany. The difference between Italy and France is therefore 209 hours, while in the case of Germany this figure is 367 hours. The OECD average is 1,746 hours worked per worker. Ten years ago, in all three countries more hours were worked on average than they are today. In 2007, the hours worked in Italy were 1,812.2 (almost 100 more than today), 1,530 in France and 1,424.4 in Germany.

This falling trend for hours worked has been ongoing for many years. In 1991, for example, the average number of hours worked in Italy was 1,851, in France 1,622 and in Germany 1,553. [1]

Who works the most hours in Europe?

In his Facebook post, Cominardi writes that “only Greece is doing worse” than Italy – that is, in terms of average number of hours worked. In reality, however, this is not the case. In 2017, according to the OECD, Greeks – bottom of the list in Europe – worked 1,956 hours, but at least five other European countries worked more hours on average than Italy: Iceland (1,858 hours), Estonia (1,792 hours), Czech Republic (1,776 hours), Hungary (1,740 hours), Ireland (1,730 hours) and Portugal (1,727 hours).

Outside Europe, the OECD countries which work more are Mexico (2,257 hours), Costa Rica (2,179) and South Korea (2,257).

What do these numbers tell us?

The economist Carlo Dell’Aringa, interviewed by L’Espresso in June 2018 revealed that in Italy the falling trend in annual working hours is mostly motivated by necessity: over the years it has become easier for Italians to find seasonal or flexible work than full-time positions. According to Dell’Aringa, then, more working hours does not automatically mean more productivity. As we have seen, Italy stands among the OECD countries with higher average annual working hours, but, with regard to productivity, it is at a standstill. Germany, in contrast, may be among the European countries with the lowest average annual working hours, but it is also among those with the highest productivity. Comparing Italy and Germany, Dell’Aringa explains that the German model for reducing working hours would be difficult to apply in Italy. Given the large number of small-sized businesses in Italy, flexible hours would cause management problems: “Shortening the working hours of an employee would place a burden on other colleagues, unless there’s some serious planning of duties and managerial organisation, which is often lacking”.

Unemployment figures

According to recent data from Eurostat, in February 2019 Italy recorded an unemployment rate of 10.9 percent. Only Spain (13.9 percent) and Greece (18 percent) are doing worse. France and Germany have lower unemployment rates than Italy, at 8.8 percent and 3.1 percent respectively. (Source: Eurostat)

The latest annual data from 2018 tells a similar story. According to Eurostat, last year Italy recorded an unemployment rate of 10.6 percent, France 9.1 percent, and Germany 3.4 percent.

The less we work, the more we work?

In his Facebook post, Cominardi places hours worked in the context of employment, suggesting that, if the first is reduced, the second will consequently increase. Countries like France and Germany are used as examples. Cominardi writes that improvements in productivity and organisation will lead to “reduction of working hours” and to “redistribution geared towards full employment”.
This hypothesis has recently been brought to public attention by Pasquale Tridico, president of the INPS (Italy’s national social welfare institute). On April 10, Tridico – during a lecture at Rome’s Sapienza University – said that the reduction of working hours could work as a “lever for redistribution of wealth and increasing employment”. While this option is not currently on the table, ministers such as Luigi Di Maio and members of the opposition, such as Maurizio Martina from the Partito Democratico, have expressed interest in exploring this argument in Parliament.

In reality, the idea that a reduction of working hours produces more work – because it creates the need to fill more positions in order to “fill the gap” – is anything but certain according to the economic research community. As the economists Batut, Garnero and Tondini explain in a recent article in lavoce.info, empirical studies on the European experience “do not seem to suggest that reducing working hours leads to an increase in employment”. However, direct and durable benefits have been observed for the productivity growth and the wellbeing of workers.

The verdict

Claudio Cominardi (M5S) wrote on Facebook that Italians work around 1,800 hours per year, fewer hours than Greeks, but 240 more hours than the French, and 350 more hours than Germans. The latter two countries also have lower unemployment rates than Italy. The claims of the State Secretary for Labour are, however, inaccurate, for at least two reasons.

It is true that France and Germany work fewer hours annually (with a difference of 209 hours and 367 hours respectively). It is not true, however, that in Europe “only Greece is doing worse” than Italy: there are in fact at least seven other European countries which in 2017 (most recent data available) worked more hours than Italians.

Finally, while it is correct to say that France and Germany have lower unemployment rates than Italy, this correlation does not necessarily mean that a reduction of working hours leads to an increase in employment, even if there are other positive effects observed by experts.
In conclusion, Cominardi gets a “Not really”.

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