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Cutting hours didn't help the jobless

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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.

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