Magazine

Are Greeks the hardest workers in Europe?

  • 26 February 2012
  • From the section Magazine
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Butchers in the Omonia market district, Athens
A high proportion of Greeks are self-employed, as shopkeepers or farmers

The eurozone crisis has sown divisions in the European family, and Greece in particular has often been singled out for criticism. Has Greece been living beyond its means? Are Greeks lazy? On this second point, the statistics tell a surprising story.

This week Greece is facing more spending cuts after agreeing to a deal of 130bn euros (£110bn, $175bn) to help it avoid bankruptcy.

But the statistics suggest the country has not lost its way due to laziness. If you look at the average annual hours worked by each worker, the Greeks seem very hard-working.

Figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) show that the average Greek worker toils away for 2,017 hours per year which is more than any other European country.

Out of the 34 members of the OECD, that is just two places behind the board leaders, South Korea.

On the other hand, the average German worker - normally thought of as the very epitome of industriousness - only manages 1,408 hours a year. Germany is 33rd out of 34 on the OECD list (or 24th out of 25 looking at the European countries alone).

Only one other OECD country's workers put in fewer hours, and that's the Netherlands with 1,377 hours.

The average Greek is working a full 40% longer than the average German.

But there is more to these figures than meets the eye. There are two big reasons why these two countries have such different annual working hour totals.

Greek olive farmers planting tree
Greeks take less holiday, sickness leave and maternity leave than Germans

Pascal Marianna, who is a labour markets statistician at the OECD says: "The Greek labour market is composed of a large number of people who are self-employed, meaning farmers and - on the other hand - shop-keepers who are working long hours."

Self-employed workers tend to work more than those who have specified hours in an employment contract.

The second reason Mr Marianna points to is the different number of part-time workers in each country.

"In Germany, the share of employees working part-time is quite high. This represents something like one in four," he says.

As these annual hours figures are for all workers, the large proportion who work part-time in Germany is bringing down the overall average. In Greece, far fewer people work part-time.

So, because the two labour markets are structured differently, it is actually hard to compare like with like.

If you account for these factors by stripping away part-time and self-employed people and look only at full-time salaried workers, the Greeks are still working almost 10% more hours than the Germans.

This is because the Germans take more holiday, sickness leave and maternity leave - on average four weeks more than the Greeks.

So far, we have been focusing on those in employment, but only 60% of Greece's working age population have jobs compared to 72% in Germany.

German factory worker
Germany's manufacturing sector is highly efficient

You might think, then, that if we looked at the average number of hours worked by all those of working age - dividing the total number of hours worked by the working age population - Germany would come out on top. But no, Greece still beats Germany.

Why is it then that it's Greece that needs to be bailed out, and not Germany?

That's a complicated question. But you get part way to answering it by doing another simple sum.

Take gross domestic product (GDP) - that's the country's entire production - and divide it by the number of workers.

On this basis, the average German worker is more productive than the average Greek. Germany ranks as the eighth most productive country by worker out of the OECD countries - or the seventh out of the European countries - while Greece comes in at 24th.

Mr Marianna says this is mainly because Germany has a very efficient manufacturing sector.

And while a smaller proportion of Germans work in agriculture, here too they are more efficient - partly because "technology is more widespread", he says.

But when all is said and done, Mr Marianna is keen to stress that all these numbers come with a health warning.

They are collected by individual national statistics authorities who each have their own methods of collecting and collating information.

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