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Merry Christmas, from the government to the workers -- in France, that is

by Steven Hill

Just a few days before Christmas, the French government passed a law that was a welcome gift to their workers -- they shortened the legal workweek from 39 hours to 35. This follows a European trend, where Swedish, German, Italian and soon Belgian and Spanish workers will have seen reductions in their workweek.

Meanwhile, in the United States the trend is in the opposite direction. We have an unenforced 40 hour workweek, and the average full-time worker now works 44 hours. Some work more than that because certain industries pressure employees to work overtime, including grueling 12 hour shifts as employers move to continuous 24-hour production.

In fact, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, American workers put in more working hours during an average year than workers in Britain, France, Sweden and Germany. American workers also have less parental leave, less affordable daycare and the least number of paid holidays and vacation, in some industries as low as only 10 vacation days per year. The European standard is to give its workers at least five weeks of paid vacation per year.

French employers, including U.S.-owned companies in France, have opposed the new law, warning that it will cause capital flight and job loss. Boosters of globalization, certain that their one-size-fits-all model should work for every nation, shake their heads over France, and Europe generally, for bending themselves around labor and environmental considerations that disadvantage them in competitive global markets. They are quick to point out that, while American workers may work longer hours and have less vacation, at least they have jobs. European workers, meanwhile, have been plagued by double-digit unemployment.

It seems that the punishing free-for-all of globalization and open markets is a zero-sum game, promising with one hand and taking away with the other. Sure, you can have a booming, pedal-to-the-metal economy -- like in the United States -- but there are downsides. Too many of the jobs created are temporary or dead-end service sector jobs. And without a safety net to cushion those who fall, the disparities become appalling. The rate of homelessness in American cities has reached a Third World scale that Europeans can scarcely imagine. Forty million people, most of them children, are without health care. The income ratio of the top 20% of earners to the bottom is about 10 to 1 in the U.S., comparable to Latin America's rate, and double that of Europe.

Or, you can try some version of the European model, which factors social, labor and environmental costs into the economy, resulting perhaps in a more humane outcome -- but one plagued by higher unemployment and larger government deficits connected to the expenses of an ample welfare safety net. These are not coincidences. In a globalized world, they are two bedeviling sides of the same coin, the zero-sum game of competition.

For the French, they have decided that this holiday season their workers will have enough time to spend with their families and loved ones. That seems like a good thing, certainly something that is lacking in the American experience these days. Here, it seems that families are strapped for time and under enormous pressure. Perhaps that has something to do with the frightening level of violence perpetrated in American society, including the recent horror of workers and schoolchildren erupting in murderous shooting sprees.

In a competitive world, there always will be winners and losers. But it will be a race to the bottom if each nation tries to outdo the other in giving its workers the longest work hours, the least days off, and the least benefits. The quest for a fair economy can be put in its proper perspective by answering a simple question: who is to benefit? Perhaps this holiday season Americans should take a few moments to reflect on that important question.

[Steven Hill is the western regional director of the Center for Voting and Democracy. He is co-author of "Reflecting All of Us" (Beacon Press, 1999). He lives in San Francisco. For more information, see www.fairvote.org or write to: PO Box 22411, San Francisco, CA 94122.]

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