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All work and some play

August 20, 2009. Haaretz: Orna Coussin

Should workers across the world take off the whole month of August? This was the question the Financial Times posed to several experts a few weeks ago. "Anglo-Saxons should relax and adopt the French way," advised Corinne Maier, author of "Hello Laziness: Why Hard Work Doesn't Pay" (Orion, 2005). Maier reminded British readers that many French companies close during August, sending their employees on a month-long vacation. Nevertheless, French workers' productivity is higher than that of their American counterparts (who, as a rule, get only one-quarter of the vacation time given in France).

"August is perfect for laziness. If the senior staff takes a holiday in August, it won't make any difference as far as business is concerned. But in terms of happiness and health, huge progress will be made," she told the paper.

Is it possible, and would it be worthwhile, to turn the steaming month in question into a common, annual vacation? Is it time to consider whether we want to carry on with the American method and work until we collapse from exhaustion? Perhaps it is preferable to reduce the number of working hours, take more leave and - like the French - relax a little bit.
Israel's Annual Leave Law of 1951 accords employees a minimum of 10 vacation days a year. The European Union stipulates a minimum of 20 days off, not including holy days and festivals. Finland and France have upped the annual minimum to 30 days. In practice, in various countries, the number of vacation days increases with seniority at work. (The European data are based on a recent comparative analysis by Mercer, the international temporary employment company.)

The French add 10 holidays and commemorative days to their 30 days of leave per year; thus, all told, employees get at least 40 days off. In Finland the total number with those extra days reaches 44; in Denmark it's 35; and in Germany, 34. In Israel there is a total of 18 such days: the minimum of 10 plus eight for the Jewish holidays, which constitute mandatory leave days (Shavuot, Yom Kippur, the first and last days of Sukkot and Passover, and two days for Rosh Hashanah), as stated in the Law and Administration Ordinance (1948).

Even if they wanted to, most local workers would not be able to take an annual leave that would include the entire month of August. Not only do they not have sufficient vacation days, they are also not free to choose when to take their days off. Attorney Maya Zahor, who heads the clinic for working women's rights at the Hebrew University's Faculty of Law, notes that the employer often determines when employees go on leave in the country. This norm exists in many European countries as well, with the only requirement being that the boss give workers advance notice. In fact, Israeli employers rarely do that.

Zahor says the local custom is especially problematic for women: "Altogether, from the working mother's perspective, 10 vacation days a year is [insulting]: If you take into account children's school holidays, including the religious holidays and the August vacation [when few activities for children are available], your annual leave ends long before you can decide how you want to spend it." Nevertheless, she adds, mothers should fight not for more vacation days, but rather for a reduction in the number of hours they work every day, which is a critical problem.

It is interesting to recall that the International Labor Organization (ILO), which first convened in Washington, D.C. in 1919, set a new standard. It limited industrial laborers' work to eight hours a day, or a maximum of 48 hours a week. That decision was made following a series of protests and demonstrations by workers throughout the United States that began at the turn of the century and led to a wave of dramatic changes in attitudes regarding work and workers.

A century ago, of course, the norms were dismal: Workers toiled in surroundings that were detrimental to their health, there was no limit to the number of hours they could be made to work, their rights to breaks, meals and other amenities were not honored, and consequently they were not paid for overtime.

Today, the ILO reports that one out of five workers around the world - some 600 million men and women - still works more than 48 hours a week. The organization checked employment policies and practices in 50 countries. Peru leads the list in work loads: Half its laborers work more than 48 hours weekly. In Korea, Thailand and Pakistan, the percentage of people working such hours exceeds 44 percent.

According to the same ILO study, Israel is among the developed countries where a shorter work week is common. Nonetheless, Israel, along with Britain, is a leader in this category, with 25 percent of workers putting in more than 48 hours a week. The two are followed by Australia (20 percent), Switzerland (19 percent) and the United States, where 18 percent of employees exceed the maximum standard of hours set by the ILO (not including people who hold more than one job to make ends meet).

Stuck in traffic

According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, local men work, on average, 42 hours a week (seven hours a day, six days a week), while women work an average of 30.5 hours a week. There are, however, significant differences among the economy's branches. Men who work in industry put in an average of 44 hours a week, and women, 36.5 hours. In commerce, men work, on average, 45 hours a week, and women 34. A particularly long work week is the norm in high-tech, which employs some 250,000 men and women. In that sector, the average work week for men is 46 hours, and for women 40. In any event, compared with the French work week, which by law cannot exceed 35 hours, the average Israeli work week is very long; by Israeli law it is not supposed to exceed 45 hours.

Israelis are not only used to working long days. They also tend to spend a good deal of time traveling to and from work. As a consequence, they have little time left to be with their families, or for spiritual, sports or other activities.

Sixty-two percent of Israeli employees drive private cars to work. The remainder rely on public transportation (16 percent), walk (13 percent), or use transportation provided by their employers (6 percent); very few (3 percent) get to work on bicycles or motorcycles (according to data from the nonprofit organization Transport Today & Tomorrow). Around the world people spend, on average, 40 minutes getting to work. In Israel, however, the traffic jams along the Ayalon highway, Highway 4 and other routes leading to the central Dan region hold people up a minimum of one hour a day - in each direction.

Israelis' attitudes toward work and leisure hours are influenced by American rather than European culture. In a recent survey on how people spend their time, the U.S. Department of Labor recently reported that, on average, Americans work 7.9 hours daily. They sleep, on average, for eight hours, watch TV for three hours, engage in household chores for two hours a day, and are involved in preparing and eating food for two more hours. That leaves them about an hour for so-called spiritual development. Recent Israeli research reveals similar trends.

In British philosopher Bertrand Russell's essay "In Praise of Idleness" (1932) he maintained there was no reason to work more than four hours a day. "When I suggest that working hours should be reduced to four, I am not meaning to imply that all the remaining time should necessarily be spent in pure frivolity. I mean that four hours' work a day should entitle a man to the necessities and elementary comforts of life, and that the rest of his time should be his to use as he might see fit," he wrote.

Russell believed that such a schedule would allow people who are curious about science to comfortably indulge in that pursuit, painters would be able to develop their talents without starving, and writers could devote their time to producing more literary works without feeling compelled to churn out sensational best-sellers in order to make a living. In such a world, journalists too would have time to travel the globe, adapt to various surroundings, gather information, study and delve into subjects for many hours a day - for their pleasure and personal edification, free from time constraints and the need to work for a living. 

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