Thursday, 4 June 1992
Dáil Éireann Debate
11. Mr. Connaughton asked the Minister for Labour if he will outline the length of the average working week in Ireland; the way in which this compares with the average throughout the EC; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
Mr. Cowen: A special labour market survey carried out by the EC Commission, the results of which were published in 1989, shows that the average number of hours worked by full time employees in industry in Ireland was 41 per week. The corresponding average for  the EC, excluding Denmark and Luxembourg, was 39 hours. Average working hours in the ten countries covered varied from 37 in Belgium and the United Kingdom to 44 in Portugal.
The Framework Agreement on Hours of Work negotiated under the Programme for National Recovery provided for a reduction of working hours by one hour in cases where the normal working week is at or above 40 hours. This agreement has generally been implemented throughout the economy and this should reduce the average for Ireland. The question of a further reduction in working hours was discussed in the negotiations on the Programme for Economic and Social Progress but agreement was not reached on the issue. The programme states that the ICTU have indicated that they will, in the event of negotiations for a further agreement on pay and conditions, be seeking a general reduction in working time in the context of international developments and the economic and social situation in Ireland.
Mr. J. Browne: (Carlow-Kilkenny): May I ask the Minister how the average is arrived at? If I may digress slightly for a moment the average class size in Ireland is deduced by dividing the number of teachers into the number of pupils. As there are some teachers with no classes and there are one-teachers schools, the average is not a realistic figure. I would like to know how the average is arrived at and, second, will we do as is normal, that is, follow the European average?
Mr. Cowen: As I have stated, a special labour market survey was carried out by the EC Commission. The figures given in the reply refer to average total hours worked, including overtime, and not to the length of the basic working week.
Mr. Rabbitte: Could the Minister tell the House his disposition in this matter? Does he acknowledge that to shorten the length of the working week on average can contribute to job creation? Is it his disposition to exhort the social partners negotiating on this matter to reach agreement  on some minimal shortening of the working week in Ireland, having regard to the fact that we are still towards the top of the range? This was one weakness I highlighted at the time of the negotiations on the Programme for Economic and Social Progress.
Mr. Cowen: The programme states that ICTU have indicated that in the event of negotiations for a further agreement on pay and conditions they will be seeking a general reduction in working time in the context of international development, and of the economic and social position in Ireland. I do not want to pre-empt the outcome of those negotiations. We should await negotiation of the general agreement on pay and conditions before making a decision on that matter.
Mr. Garland: In spite of the fact that we have the highest unemployment rate in the EC, the Minister has admitted that at 41 hours our average working week, including overtime, is in excess of the EC average. Would the Minister comment on a statement in the Irish Independent on 30 April that Ireland is one of the two countries who oppose a 48 hour week for the EC?
Mr. Cowen: That is a separate question. The Deputy is referring to the EC directive on reorganisation of working time. The Council will meet on that matter on 24 June. Traditionally we have different working practices. There is a need for flexibility in relation to that directive for practical reasons and for reasons of maintaining our competitive position. There is no ideological problem in relation to this matter. The directive is being made under the framework of the health and safety directive for the protection of workers in the workplace. We are in a negotiating position in relation to that whole matter. It is wrong to say that we oppose the 48 hour average working week. We are negotiating the reference period over which that average will be taken, and we are not alone in that. There are many countries who wish  to bring flexibility to that directive so that it is a workable directive. We do not want a directive that is not workable and that prejudices our ability to retain existing jobs and create new ones.
Mr. Rabbitte: In respect of the Minister's comments on maintaining competitive advantage, what does the Minister consider are the competitive implications of the British refusal to adopt the Social Charter? Does that put this country at a competitive disadvantage in the matter of working hours?
Mr. Cowen: The reorganisation of working time comes under the framework of the health and safety directive to which all of the Twelve are committed. Should a decision be taken in relation to that directive it will relate to the Twelve, and Britain will not be excluded from the obligations under the directive. It is proposed by the Portuguese Presidency that the matter will be finalised on 24 June next at the Council meeting of Social Affairs Ministers. This is a pre-Maastricht directive that will be binding on all 12 member states.
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