Americans work longest hours among industrialized countries, Japanese second longest. Europeans work less time, But register faster productivity gains.


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Key Indicators of the Labour Market author Lawrence Jeff Johnson will be available for interviews in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday September 1 and Thursday September 2. Call (703) 820-2244 to schedule an interview.


US workers put in the longest hours on the job in industrialized nations, clocking 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 since 1980, according to a new statistical study of global labor trends published by the International Labor Office (ILO).

The study examines 18 Key Indicators of the Labor Market (KILM), including labor productivity, labor costs, unemployment and underemployment and hours worked. It shows that the US 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 US and Japanese workers (whose 1995 total was 1,889 annual hours worked versus 2,121 in 1980, a decline of more than 10%) 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.

In France, which recently introduced legislation limiting the workweek to 35 hours, men and women workers put in 1,656 hours in 1997 versus 1,810 in the 1980s. In Germany (Western), the annual total of working hours was just under 1,560 in 1996 versus 1,610 in 1990 and 1,742 in 1980.

Workers in the United Kingdom, putting in 1,731 hours annually in 1997, appear to have neither gained nor lost much free time since 1980 when they worked 1,775 hours. Irish workers’ annual hours dropped from 1,728 in 1980 to 1,656 in 1996, putting them roughly on par with Switzerland (1,643), Denmark (1,689 hours for male workers in 1994) and the Netherlands (1,679 for male workers in 1994).

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 workweek during the last decades, with 1996’s result of 1,732 days having dropped 52 hours from 1980’s total of 1,784.

Fewer statistics are available on annual hours worked per person for the developing world, so trends are not as easily identifiable. However, 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 2,200-2,300 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.

Workers in Latin American and Caribbean countries work between 1,800-2,000 hours per year, with only modest declines from 1980 levels.

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. Lower working hours may also reflect higher productivity.” He added that, “while the benefits of hard work are clear, working more is not the same as working better.”

However, Mr. Somavia cautioned that many other factors “including productivity, compensation, unemployment, levels of technology, social benefits, job security and even cultural attitudes toward work and leisure need to be considered in any meaningful analysis of working time.” He said that in all countries “there is a widespread tendency to underestimate and undervalue the work of women.”

“Among the goals of the ILO KILM project,” he added “is to provide an up-to-date statistical profile of world-wide employment trends so that the full range of social and economic consequences of different labor market options can be examined.” Somavia said that he hoped the 600-page volume, containing comparative data from 240 countries and territories worldwide, would prove a valued reference in “the search for equity and efficiency in the world of work.”

The project is the result of a collaborative effort among the ILO, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and several national and international agencies to select and refine indicators of global labor trends. Among the data sources are the United Nations Statistical Division, The World Bank, the Statistical Office of the European Union and the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The KILM is available in two formats — a standard print version and a CD-ROM. Additional information about the KILM project and indicators will also be available on a special ILO web site (

Productivity Puzzle

The first installment of KILM, which presents information by category and by country, will no doubt raise as many questions as it answers, notably on the vexed questions of matching labor resources to productivity, employment and economic pressures in the increasingly global economy.

Mr. 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.

Johnson said, “Currently the US 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 US outpaced Japan by nearly $10,000 (USD) 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.”

A similar situation prevails vis-a-vis the US’s largest trading partner, Canada, where labor productivity is increasing at a faster rate in terms of value added per hour worked (123.4 vs. 120.3); however, in terms of valued added per hour worked in 1997, US workers continued to outproduce their Canadian counterparts by more than $5 USD.

According to Johnson, “the productivity race is like a never-ending marathon in which the US 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 US in their sights.”

The KILM shows that on average, labor productivity growth in Western Europe has been increasing at a faster rate than in the US (22 percentage points). Asia (excluding Japan) has shown a significantly better catch-up performance relative to the advanced countries. Between 1980 and 1997, productivity growth in Asia was about 2 percentage points faster than for the advanced countries, and its productivity gap relative to the United States declined by almost 5 percentage points.

This suggests that the major competitive challenge to current US productivity dominance comes from not only from a reviving Asian economy, but also from the major European economies, in spite of the many different labor market strategies, including reduced work schedules, being implemented in countries worldwide.

Among European countries, Ireland had by far the highest levels of labor productivity growth, which surged by 82 percentage points in the years between 1980-1997. The very high growth levels in Ireland are partly explained by the country’s comparatively low level of labor productivity versus other European countries, but also by high educational achievements and fast economic growth rates in the country. Other European countries showing high growth in labor productivity include Finland (54 points), Sweden (39 points), Spain (38 points), Denmark (34 points) and Belgium and the UK (both at 33 points). French labor productivity grew by at about 30 points during the period. Germany’s by 31 points.

The productivity challenge comes from both developed and developing areas of the world. Thailand saw its labor productivity growth soar between 1980-97, with the value added per person employed rising by a whopping 141 percentage points. The measure, which basically divides a country’s gross domestic product by the number of people employed in order to estimate the average output per worker, does not take account of all possible factors (such as access to technology and capital) but does provide a reliable indicator of worker efficiency in relation to overall economic growth.

On the basis of the value added per person measurement, the Philippines’ productivity growth shrank from 100 in 1980 to 84 in 1995. Indonesia’s rose by 49 points between 1980-1995. Hong Kong, China grew by 91 points between 1980 and 1996. Taiwan, China grew by 120 points in the same period. Elsewhere in Asia since 1980, India was up 64 points in 1995, Sri Lanka 58 in the same year.

Among developing regions, Latin America has shown very little productivity improvement over the past two decades, with the notable exception of Chile and Colombia which saw a more than 20 point increases in productivity between 1980 and 1996. On average, the Latin American region experienced a slight decline in productivity between 1980 and 1996, with Brazil virtually unchanged since the 1980s.

Other Key Labor Market Trends

Worldwide, employment is shifting from sectors that produce goods (agriculture and industry) to the services-producing sector. This shift is most pronounced in the developed countries and transition economies, and less dramatic in sub-Saharan Africa and some Asian countries. However, with few exceptions, the proportion of total employment engaged in agriculture is declining around the world and the services sector is now responsible for at least half of total employment in industrialized countries.

The KILM shows that in 1996 and 1997, rates of unemployment were relatively high throughout much of the world, with nearly one-half of all countries studied showing unemployment rates in excess of 7%. Developed countries had high rates as well, with 14 out of the 29 countries rating in excess of 7%. For most countries for which data are available for this indicator, women have higher unemployment rates than men. The principal exception is sub-Saharan Africa, where men’s unemployment exceeds women’s in most countries.

Worldwide wage trends were found to be diverse. Wages in major European countries have been increasing steadily, while they generally remained unchanged or dropped in Europe’s transitional economies. Similarly, wages in East Asia and Southeast Asia increased steadily before the economic crisis showed steady growth, while wages remained constant or declined in south-central Asia during the same period. Wages in Latin America were somewhat diverse, while they showed a steady downward trend in sub-Saharan Africa.

The urban informal sector represents an integral part of many developing economies. Of 42 countries studied, 13 had rates of urban informal activity greater than 50% of total employment. These include nine African countries (Cameroon, Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Ghana , Kenya, Madagascar, Mali, Tanzania and Uganda), three Latin American countries (Bolivia, Colombia and Peru) and one in Asia, Pakistan. The highest shares of urban informal sector activity (more than 70%) were recorded in Gambia, Ghana, Mali and Uganda.

It is well known that both poverty and inequality impact upon, and are affected by, the functioning of labor markets, The report shows nine countries were found to have poverty levels of 50% or more: Guinea-Bissau (88.2%), Zambia (84.6%), Madagascar (72.3%), Uganda (69.3%), Niger (61.5%), Senegal (54.0%), India (52.5%), Nepal (50.3%) and Kenya (50.2%).

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The PDF of Key Indicators of the Labour Market 1999 is available on the internet:


Category: Press Release