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Adieu, France’s 35 hour work week…

The debate  over whether the state should regulate maximum hours of work is as old as the capitalist model itself.  Some of greatest battles (and victories) in labour history, including in Canada, were fought over the issue, and the Canadian labour movement continues to be active in pushing for greater controls on hours  of work (see this recent submission of the Ontario Federation of Labour, for example), although unions often experience resistance from their members when fewer hours will translate into less overtime pay.

The argument for a shorter work week is not just about creating more leisure time for workers to spend with their families, although that is part of the argument.  An important economic  argument is that imposing a cap on maximum hours will prevent employers from assigning huge amounts of overtime to existing workers and will instead require them to hire more workers.  The idea is that more workers working fewer hours is better for the economy and for the social fabric of a community than having fewer workers working more hours.  

These were the ideas that prompted the French government to impose a ’35 hour work week’ almost a decade ago.  At around the same time, the Mike Harris conservative government in Ontario was amending the Ontario Employment Standards Act to allow for a 60 hour work week (employees could be required to work up to 60 hours in a week without need of a government permit).   The Harris government argued that longer hours were necessary to ensure  Ontario was competitive.  The French government argued that shorter work weeks were needed to create jobs.  

Now, nearly a decade later, the conservative French government is reforming the law, arguing that French employers need more ‘flexibility’ for negotiating longer work weeks.  Meanwhile, in Ontario, the Liberal government reformed the ESA to eliminate the ’60 hour work week’ in favour of a shorter 48 hour  work week to provide more protection for employees and  their families.   So, you can see how political ideology and expediency plays a crucial role in how states govern the workplace.

The new Ontario law, as does the new French law, allows employees/unions to agree to longer work weeks. In Ontario, the government must approve arrangements over 48 hours. The new Ontario provisions are found  in Part VII of the ESA.

Do you think the Ontario model strikes a fair balance between the interests of workers and employers?




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