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Americans work longest hours, Japanese second longest

Date Posted: 1999-09-10

Workers in the United States put in the longest hours on the job in industrialized nations, including Japan, according to a new statistical study of global labor trends published by the International Labour Office (ILO).

U.S. workers clocked up nearly 2,000 hours per capita in 1997, the equivalent of almost two working weeks more than their counterparts in Japan where annual hours worked have been gradually declining for almost 20 years. In 1995, Japanese workers put in a total of 1,889 annual hours worked against 2,121 in 1980, a decline of more than 10 percent.

The study examined 18 Key Indicators of the Labour Market (KILM), including labor productivity, labor costs, unemployment and underemployment and hours worked. It shows that the U.S. pattern of increasing annual hours worked per person - which totaled 1,966 in 1997 versus 1,883 in 1980, an increase of nearly 4% - runs contrary to a world-wide trend in industrialized countries that has seen hours at work remaining steady or declining in recent years.

The long working hours of American and Japanese workers contrasts most sharply with those of European workers, who are logging progressively fewer hours on the job, particularly in the Scandinavian countries such as Norway and Sweden where hours worked in 1997 were, respectively 1,399 and 1,552 per year.

Both male and female workers in Australia logged only slightly longer hours than their counterparts in New Zealand in 1996 (1,867 versus 1,838). Canadian workers have seen their work schedules decline by more than a full work week during the last decades, with 1996's result of 1,732 hours closely resembling 1980's total of 1,784.

Among rapidly industrializing countries and regions, East Asia would appear to have the longest hours of work with Hong Kong - China, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand all reporting between 2,200-1,300 per year, but the figures are all pre-1995, prior to the Asian financial crisis. Figures for the Republic of Korea show a steady decline from 1980 levels of 2,064 hours per year to 1,892 per year in 1996.

Commenting on the findings, ILO Director-General Juan Somavia said: "The number of hours worked is one important indicator of a country's overall quality of life." He added that "while the benefits of hard work are clear, working more is not the same as working better."

Lawrence Jeff Johnson, the ILO labor economist who directed the KILM project, said that in spite of divergence in working hours, the major industrialized countries are seeing convergence on the labor productivity front.

Said Johnson: "Currently the U.S. worker works more hours than his or her counterpart in other industrialized countries, and he or she also leads the way in terms of productivity."

He added that "in 1996, the U.S. outpaced Japan by nearly US$10,000 in terms of value added per person employed and in terms of value added per hour worked by nearly $9, but in recent years workers in Japan have been rapidly closing the gap."

According to Johnson, "the productivity race is like a never-ending marathon in which the U.S. worker today is ahead of the pack, but a significant number of competitors - notably Japan, the Republic of Korea and the major European countries - are picking up speed with the U.S. in their sights."

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