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Workaholics not by choice

דצמבר 11, 2006. Haaretz: Gilad Nathan

In an interview last week (Haaretz, TheMarker, 27.11), the new director general of Steimatzky, Iris Barel, proudly noted that when she began her job, the publisher's offices would already be empty at 4:00 P.M. every day, but today even at 7 P.M., the lights are still on and people even move more quickly from room to room.

During the tenure of the leftist government of the Popular Front and Leon Blum in France during the late 1930s, the French arrived at the 40-hour workweek, which was considered to provide the right balance between the time required for manufacture, commerce and provision of services, and the needs of the workers. Since then, populations have grown and technology has advanced, the two main conditions for shortening the workweek, but in Israel, it remains as it was when the state was established, 46 hours. In many free professions, this is of no significance and the worker is required to work hours that do not allow for a normal family life. Accountants, doctors, lawyers and, as it turns out, publishing house employees too, have to be available to their employer from 8 in the morning until 7 or 8 o'clock in the evening, while in most cases they receive a global salary.

Even in cases where the salary is not global and extra pay is added for every hour of overtime, as required by law, the worker has no choice but to put in the extra hours if he or she wants to keep his job: The competition for each and every job is stiff and a worker who does not toe the line will be replaced. In the era of personal contracts and a work culture that demands of the employee total identification with the workplace, even without a guarantee of appropriate work conditions, the result is that more and more people are being required to work 50 hours a week and up. The one who is paying the price is the worker, whose leisure time is now devoted to sleeping and unwinding in front of the television; the family, which is left to functioning without any substantial presence of the working parents; and the worker's social ties gradual decline as well. All of the accomplishments of Western social democracy are gradually disappearing. Because in European countries the ceiling on the number of hours in the workweek is strictly maintained, and in the large publishing houses in Germany, France and Britain the corridors are empty at 4 P.M., it's hard to understand the great pride in the long work hours or the connection between them and achievement and excellence. More clear is the connection between long work hours and worker burnout, unemployment among those in the free professions and the inability of veteran workers to find jobs or keep them. Every position that could be once filled by one and half or two people is today filled by one person, and people who are after 20 years of working 10 hours a day are no longer able to meet the requirements, find themselves being sent home.

The fact that the legal work hours in Israel are like those of a third world country or late-19th century England is saddening. The fact that even these work hours are not being maintained, but rather are being sacrificed to the employer's need to maximize profits, is even more saddening. There is no reason for a work day of more than eight hours or a workweek longer than 40 hours; and more to the point, there is no reason why 70 years after Blum and his government set limits on the workweek fitting for a modern society, we too should not be able to enjoy a work schedule that allows not only for success at work, but also success and enjoyment in our personal life.

The author is a doctoral student in the Hebrew University's department of general history.

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