Time over money? Germany’s largest union defends 28-hour week

Tens of thousands of German workers downed tools this week as the country's largest union ramped up its battle for the right to a 28-hour week.

Time over money? Germany's largest union defends 28-hour week
Employees during a warning strike in Brandenburg on Wednesday. Photo: DPA

As union leaders and employers return to the negotiating table Thursday, here's what you need to know about IG Metall's groundbreaking campaign to rethink the work-life balance – and what it could mean for the rest of the country.

What do they want?

IG Metall represents some 3.9 million workers in Germany's crucial metal and electrical engineering industries.

As in past industry-wide negotiations with employers, it is pushing for a wage hike – this time seeking a whopping six-percent increase.

But most striking in the current showdown has an emphasis on giving employees the freedom to tailor their work hours to their personal lives.

READ ALSO: These German cities offer the best work-life balance

The union wants all workers to have the option of switching from a 35- to a 28-hour week for a two-year period, with a guaranteed return to full-time work afterwards.

In certain cases – and this has been the most headline-grabbing demand – the union says employers should make up some of the salary loss that would result from clocking up fewer hours.

It wants those caring for young children or elderly relatives, for example, to receive an extra €200 a month.

And shift workers or others whose working hours can weigh on health should be entitled to an additional €750 annually, it says.

What are the arguments for a shorter week?

IG Metall says flexible working time has so far mainly benefited employers who got staff to put in longer days.

But with Europe's top economy humming and unemployment at a record-low, it believes the time is right for a radical shake-up.

“Workers aren't only workers, they have personal lives, children, old parents,” Berlin IG Metall chief Olivier Hoebel told strikers at a demonstration on Monday. “Working life can't only be about sacrifice.”

IG Metall believes its proposals would especially benefit women, large numbers of whom work part-time for family reasons and currently don't have an automatic way back to full-time employment when their situation changes.

How have employers reacted?

With a firm 'no'.

The Gesamtmetall employers' federation has predictably balked at the suggestion of paying staff extra to work less.

It has dismissed the proposals as “too costly” and “unfair” to those already in part-time work under less generous conditions.

It says introducing the compensation measure would be discriminatory and open companies up to legal action.

After two rounds of negotiations, employers have so far offered a two-percent wage increase, but no progress has been made on the 28-hour issue.

What would the impact be?

Where IG Metall goes, others tend to follow.

Europe's largest trade union was instrumental in pushing through a 35-hour working week in the 1990s, and employers across Germany are closely watching to see if the next labour revolution is around the corner.

Already the call for a shorter week has triggered heated debate about quality of life and the future of work in a world where jobs are increasingly automated.

Supporters have praised the union's proposals as “very modern” and said they could help firms hang on to their best and brightest.

But critics have countered that a reduced week could exacerbate a shortage of skilled workers, while smaller firms in particular might struggle to meet production targets.

“If it would be replicated throughout the economy, it could do serious damage,” said Holger Schmieding, chief economist at Berenberg bank .

Gesamtmetall estimates that some 1.5 million workers would be eligible for the proposed compensation if they chose the 28-hour route. IG Metall however believes the actual take-up would be far lower.

Where to go from here?

A third round of talks starts Thursday, but there's little hope of a breakthrough.

IG Metall raised the stakes this week, with tens of thousands of workers launching hours-long “warning strikes” at dozens of firms including Volkswagen, BMW and Siemens.

It has vowed to call day-long walkouts if the standoff continues and even threatened to stage the union's first nationwide, open-ended strike since 2003.

“If on Thursday we still can't see a willingness to seriously talk about these issues, the situation will escalate,” IG Metall chief for southwestern Germany, Roman Zitzelsberger, told the Handelsblatt financial daily.

For members


Which Bavaria-based companies regularly hire English speakers?

Bavaria is no doubt a beautiful state with a strong economy, but can be a hard place for non-German speakers to integrate. The Local takes a look at job opportunities in Germany’s southeastern 'Free State.'

Which Bavaria-based companies regularly hire English speakers?

Munich ranks third in German cities with the highest total GDP, behind Berlin and Hamburg, but in terms of GDP per capita, it’s higher than both of them.

It also consistently ranks high, often highest, in terms of average household income.

As of 2023, nine of the 40 companies listed on DAX, Germany’s stock index, were based in Bavaria. Seven of those are based specifically in Munich.

While Frankfurt is commonly known to be Germany’s business capital, Munich can claim the title of Germany’s insurance capital, which is saying something, as Germany is home to some of the largest insurance firms in the world, like Allianz.

Beyond the state’s capital city, a number of international companies are based elsewhere in Bavaria, particularly in the Franken region, near Nuremberg.

Which companies actively hire English speakers?

Bavaria, and Munich in particular, is home to a number of companies at the forefront of international business. But the state is known for its traditional, sometimes conservative, culture, which affects its business culture as well.

Whereas companies embracing English as their primary business language are easy to find in Berlin, the practice is less common in the south. That said, there are some notable exceptions. 

Sportswear giants, Adidas and Puma, both have their headquarters near Nuremberg in Herzogenaurach, and regularly recruit English speaking international talent.

“As an international company, our teams reflect the rich diversity of our consumers and communities,” Jon Greenhalgh, Senior Manager Media Relations for Adidas told The Local. “Fostering a culture of inclusion where we value and leverage differences, ensures that we can authentically engage with our employees and truly connect with our consumers.”

He added that around 40 per cent of Adidas’ Germany-based employees are foreign nationals, from over 100 different countries.

Siemens and BMW rank among Bavaria’s top employers, and are also known to hire their fair share of foreigners.

“In Germany, we recently had around 2,000 open positions,” Konstanze Somborn told The Local on behalf of Siemens AG.

He added that Siemens operates in 190 countries. “That is why we value international teams very much…English as a common language is very usual.”

READ ALSO: ‘Which German companies want to hire foreigners?’

Similarly, BMW hires workers from a variety of backgrounds. 

“Every year, we hire lots of internationals and welcome them to the BMW Group,” Dr. Hans-Peter Ketterl, a press spokesman for BMW Group told The Local. 

But not all of these positions are available to non-German speakers.

Ketterl added that BMW’s working language is German in the country, even though, “English is an indispensable entry requirement as the second corporate language in many areas of the company.”

Check job boards and follow best practices

If it’s your first time applying for jobs in Germany, make sure to change your resume to the German format, even for English positions.

While Germany is home to its own job boards, like Xing, LinkedIn is probably the best place to start. In addition to searching for positions based in your preferred location, you can check relevant groups, like Munich Startups, to broaden your horizons.

The English Jobs in Germany website is also a good resource to start with.