Job Time An Issue Of Global Concern

PARIS -- All work and no play makes Jacques a dull boy.

To French workers who waged a crippling strike late last year, working less and playing more has become a battle cry for a better life. In France, the push is on for a 35-hour workweek and a sixth week of vacation.

But to the Japanese, that route looks more like the road to ruin. Japanese companies are reaffirming their commitment to a 44-hour workweek, the longest among leading industrialized nations, and many workers aren't even taking all of their three weeks' holiday.

Nations and corporations are dealing in vastly different ways with a common dilemma: how to improve the quality of life, yet stay competitive. Workers around the world are redefining the bottom line -- some by lingering on the job, others by punching out early.

Some of their leaders, frustrated by mounting unemployment, are peddling a shorter workweek as a way to create new jobs by spreading the work around. Employers are split over how long the week should be.

"The world is not going in the same direction," said Ray Richardson, an industrial relations expert at the London School of Economics. "Workers in general want to spend some of their increased wealth in more leisure. But these things are simply not constant throughout the world."

In the United States, the traditional workweek has remained unchanged at 40 hours since the end of World War II, and vacation usually is a minimum of two weeks, among the world's shortest.

Forty-hour workweeks also are the standard in Austria, India, Italy, Ivory Coast, Russia and Venezuela.

In Japan, four major business groups are pressing the Labor Ministry to delay its plan to reduce the 44 hour workweek to 40 hours in April 1997.

Fewer hours usually means companies end up paying workers more overtime, and "it is difficult for small and medium-sized companies to absorb the costs," the business groups said in a joint statement.

In much of Europe, there is a growing sense that 40 hours a week plus overtime is simply too much -- and life's pleasures too fleeting. In Denmark, for example, workers put in 37.5 hours a week and take a minimum five weeks to get away from it all.

"No one ever said on his deathbed, 'I wish I spent more time at the office,'" said Marc Delacroix, a French railroad welder who joined a 3 1/2-week strike that paralyzed France just before Christmas.

Most French now work 39 hours and have a minimum five weeks of vacation, and they're pushing hard to cut their workweek to 35 hours and boost their holiday to six weeks.

Germany is blazing the trail to a shorter workweek and a longer vacation, now a minimum six weeks. Most Germans work 35 hours a week, though not necessarily because they want to. Volkswagen AG pushed through a shorter workweek last year after threatening to lay off 100,000 workers because of spiraling costs. Autoworkers in Germany are among the highest paid in the world, and German labor laws and practices are among the least flexible.

As a result, many manufacturers have been shifting production to lower-cost countries in Eastern Europe or the Far East just to remain competitive.

There is talk of more strikes if the French government -- struggling to trim a $64 billion budget deficit and get ready for a common European currency -- refuses to budge.