CARACAS, May 04 (IPS) — The reduction in the workweek recently approved by the Chilean Congress forms part of a trend of working fewer hours and days that is spreading in today’s modern economies, but also highlights how far behind other countries in Latin America are in this regard.
Latin America "has legislation that is lagging in terms of working hours and it is imperative that this be reviewed," said the director of the International Labor Organization (ILO) for the Southern Cone of the Americas, Fabio Bertranou, after Chile’s new law was passed.
The workweek in Chile will be gradually reduced from 45 to 40 hours, by one hour a year over the next five years, according to the bill that a jubilant President Gabriel Boric signed into law on Apr. 14.
"After many years of dialogue and gathering support, today we can finally celebrate the passage of this bill that reduces working hours, a pro-family law aimed at improving quality of life for all," said Boric.
The law provides for the possibility of working four days and taking three off a week, of working a maximum of five overtime hours per week, while granting exceptions in sectors such as mining and transportation, where up to 52 hours per week can be worked, if the worker is compensated with fewer hours in another work week.
Chile is thus aligning itself with its partners in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in some of which, such as Australia, Denmark and France, the workweek is less than 40 hours, while in others, such as Germany, Colombia, Mexico or the United Kingdom, the workweek is longer.
The range in Latin America
According to ILO data, until the past decade two countries in the region, Ecuador and Venezuela, had a legal workweek of 40 hours, while, like Chile up to now, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Guatemala were in the range between 42 and 45 hours.
Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay had a workweek of 48 hours.
According to national laws, the maximum number of hours that people can legally work per week under extraordinary circumstances for specific reasons is 48 in Brazil and Venezuela, and between 49 and 59 in Argentina, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay and Uruguay.
In Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Guatemala and Honduras the maximum is 60 or more hours, and in El Salvador and Peru there is simply no limit.
But in practice people work less than that, since the regional average is 39.9 hours, more than in Western Europe, North America and Africa (which range between 37.2 and 38.8 hours), but less than in the Arab world, the Pacific region and Asia, where the average ranges between 44 and 49 hours per week.
ILO figures showed that in 2016 in Latin America, male workers worked an average of 44.9 hours a week and women 36.3, 1.7 hours less than in 2005 in the case of men and half an hour less in the case of women.
Among domestic workers, the decrease was 3.3 hours among men and more than five hours among women (from 38.1 to 32.9 hours a week), which is partly attributed to the fact that after 2005 legislation to equate the workweeks of domestic workers with other workers made headway.
Health and telework
A study by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the ILO attributes the death of some 750,000 workers each year to long working hours — especially people who work more than 55 hours a week.
The study showed that in 2016, 398,000 workers died worldwide from stroke and 347,000 from ischemic heart disease — ailments that are triggered by prolonged stress associated with long hours, or by risky behaviors such as smoking, drinking alcohol and eating an unhealthy diet.
María Neira, director of the WHO’s Department of Environment, Climate Change and Health, said in this regard that “working 55 hours or more per week poses a serious danger to health. It is time for all of us – governments, employers and employees – to realize that long working hours can lead to premature death.”
On the other hand, the telework trend boomed worldwide during the COVID-19 pandemic, reaching 23 million workers in Latin America and the Caribbean, mainly formal wage- earners with a high level of education, stable jobs and in professional and administrative occupations.
Access to telework has been much more limited for informal sector and self-employed workers, young people, less skilled and lower-income workers, and women, who have more family responsibilities.
ILO Latin America expert Andrés Marinakis acknowledged in an analysis that "in general, teleworkers have some autonomy in deciding how to organize their workday and their performance is evaluated mainly through the results of their work rather than by the hours it took them to do it."
But "several studies have found that in many cases those who telework work a little longer than usual; the limits between regular and overtime hours are less clear," and this situation is reinforced by the available electronic devices and technology, explained Marinakis from the ILO office in Santiago de Chile.
This means that "contact with colleagues and supervisors is possible at any time and place, extending the workday beyond what is usual," which raises "the need to clearly establish a period of disconnection that gives workers an effective rest," added the analyst.
The other face
Argentine labor activist Francisco Iturraspe told IPS by telephone that on the other hand, in the future it appears that "non-human work, that of artificial intelligence, can massively reduce employment and make 40 hours a week seem like an immense amount of work."
Iturraspe, a professor at the National University of Rosario in southeastern Argentina and a researcher at the country’s National Scientific and Technical Research Council, said from Rosario that the reduction in working hours "responds to criteria typical of the 19th century, while in the 21st century there is the challenge of meeting the need for technological development and its impact on our countries."
He argued that "to the extent that abundant and cheap labor is available, and people have to work longer hours, business owners need less investment in technology, which curbs development."
But, on the other hand, Iturraspe stressed that investment in technologies such as artificial intelligence reduces the cost of producing goods and services, evoking the thesis of zero marginal cost set out by U.S. economist Jeremy Rifkin, author of "The End of Work" and other books.
This translates into a reduction in the workforce needed to produce and distribute goods and services, "perhaps by half according to some economists, a Copernican shift that would lead us to a situation of mass unemployment."
The quest to reduce the workday walks along that razor’s edge, "with the hope that the reduction of working time can give working human beings new ways of coping with life," Iturraspe said.