AT first glance, the solution to the Netherlands' stubborn unemployment problem seemed disarmingly simple - shorten everyone's working week by a few hours and piece together these extra hours to create new jobs. The Dutch, having embraced this policy of job redistribution with enthusiasm in 1982, have managed to cut the average working week to just 38 hours. Some industries have cut this even further, to only 36 hours.
But six years after the experiment began, disillusionment has set in, mainly because unemployment has shown only a slight fall - from 17 percent in 1983 to 14 percent in 1987 - despite the cuts in hours.
Now, in a sharp reversal of previous trends, the government, the unions, and employers are all backing away from their earlier strong commitment to reducing working hours further. ``We in the unions were originally convinced that we'd be able to reduce the working week to 32 hours by 1990,'' said Cor Inja, an economist at the Trade Union Federation. ``But this goal no longer seems realistic, at least not for the time being.''
This slowdown in the push for shorter working hours is part of a wider European trend. In France, for example, efforts to reduce the official working week have faltered at the 39-hour level.
In West Germany, the unions' stated goal of a 35-hour week still seems a long way off, four years after the metal workers' union staged the country's most serious strike ever to press for an immediate five-hour cut. In the end, they settled for 38.5 hours, and last year they negotiated a further small cut to 37 hours by mid-1989.
Recently, West German steelworkers and civil servants have also negotiated reductions in their working week. But in West Germany, as in Holland, the issue no longer excites rank-and-file members as it did five years ago.
The change of heart is striking in the Netherlands, where shorter working hours - in addition to widespread early retirement schemes and annual vacations of five weeks or more - have become in-grained. Employees have grown tired of foregoing wage increases to pay for a policy that is not producing enough tangible results. Employers, for their part, complain about the difficulty of operating 36-hour or 38-hour schedules.
In most companies that adhere to the 38-hour pattern, employees still work eight hours a day, five days a week. This way, they save up two hours per week that they can put towards having either an extra full-day or two extra afternoons off per month. Not surprisingly, most workers try to schedule their extra time off for Fridays.
``Some smaller companies simply don't stay open as long as they used to because it's not worth their while taking on new people to help fill the Friday afternoon gap,'' according to Andr'e Nijsen, an economist at the small-business research institute EIM. ``So, in effect, you have created a 38-hour week or less without creating new jobs.''
Although unions and employers agree that shorter working weeks have helped to create some new jobs, they disagree on exactly how many. The unions estimate that 160,000 new jobs have come into existence in the past six years as a result of shorter working hours. Employers argue that even if this figure is accurate, shorter working weeks have not made a large enough contribution to providing jobs for the country's 700,000 unemployed.