OSLO: While many European workers are fighting to keep working hours from rising and benefits from falling, Norwegians are debating a cut to a 30-hour week and the finance minister’s make-or-break goal is to build more kindergartens.

Scandinavian nations, with Norway often in the forefront thanks to its oil wealth, have long handed out welfare benefits generous by international standards to help workers balance their jobs with family life.

But how far can they go?

Norway’s government and unions say the benefits have helped foster high productivity and helped Norway win the top spot in UN surveys as the best place in the world to live for the last five years in a row.

Employers, however, have to pay wage bills on average 30 per cent higher than in Norway’s main competitors and say there is a limit even in the world’s number three oil exporter, where the economy is booming thanks to soaring oil prices.

“Economically the sun is shining on Norway,” said Sigrun Vageng, a director at the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise, adding that employers had supported efforts to help workers have a family life.

“But from the companies’ point of view there will be a limit...You hire someone to be at work. If you have too many parental leaves, too many sick leaves, too many other leaves you have a problem,” she said.

She said that increasing globalization — including low-cost imports from China and lower-cost workers arriving from Eastern Europe — could threaten jobs. And an ageing population means that people will have to stay longer in work.

Still, the Labour-led left-of-centre government, which includes the Socialist Left Party, plans to spend 10 million crowns ($1.48 million) in 2006 on experiments to see if a 30-hour week would be better than the standard 37.5 hours.

The plan defies the European trend. Some Germans refuse and hospital staff went on strike this week to protest at plans to lengthen the work week to 40 hours from 38.5.

And in France, for instance, the 35-hour week introduced in the 1990s is also under pressure.

Norway’s government believes that shorter hours may have triple benefits — cutting sickness absence in stressful jobs, widening the pool of workers and making it easier for people to stay at work until retirement age.

“We’ll see if reduced working hours will allow more people to take part in working life,” Minister of Government Administration and Reform Heidi Grande Roys said in a recent speech. “That may contribute to allowing more people to work until retirement age.”

But Vageng dismissed the arguments. “Experiments with a six-hour day...have not led to positive consequences” on health or in attracting new or older workers, she said.—Reuters

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