BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany’s new Social Democrat (SPD) family minister has angered Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives with a proposal to cut the working week for parents of small children to 32 hours while guaranteeing them no cut in pay.
“It’s always been tough to balance work and family life but we must make it easier for families in Germany,” the minister, Manuela Schwesig, told German TV on Friday. “Parents shouldn’t be disadvantaged at work and politicians have to lead the way.”
She wants the legal definition of full-time work for mothers and fathers of children under three to be reduced from 40 hours a week, meaning they would keep the same pay as if they were working eight hours a day, five days a week.
But politicians from Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU), who launched a “grand coalition” government with the SPD last month, called the SPD proposal “crazy” and said it would be a burden on taxpayers and the economy.
“I’d like to know where the money would come from,” asked senior CDU lawmaker Michael Fuchs.
Joachim Pfeiffer, a conservative economics spokesman in the Bundestag, said work and family life should be more compatible but forcing firms to pay part-time workers the full sum “would be an attack on the competitiveness of the German economy”.
Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert dismissed Schwesig’s idea diplomatically, saying the coalition had already agreed to help working parents by boosting child benefit payments and providing more kindergarten places. There would be “no extra tax money” for what he described as the SPD minister’s personal vision.
Industry is already worried about the government’s plans to introduce a minimum wage, restrict temporary work contracts and lower the retirement age for certain categories of workers.
Top SPD politicians have led by example when it comes to taking time for their families.
Party leader Sigmar Gabriel declined to stand against Merkel in last year’s election citing the need to spend time with his baby daughter Marie. Now deputy chancellor and economy minister, he has stuck to his routine of taking Wednesday afternoons off to pick up Marie from the kindergarten.
Joerg Asmussen quit his high-profile job on the board of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt last month to spend more time with his family in Berlin, taking a less prominent post in the SPD-run labor ministry.
Schwesig, who spends Wednesday afternoons with her son but had to postpone the play date to Thursday this week, cited a study by a union-funded think tank putting the cost of cutting parents’ working hours at just 140 million euros per year.
She argued that her proposal would actually “benefit the economy if more people, especially well-trained women, remain in the workforce because they feel work and family are compatible”.
Members of Merkel’s conservatives have also signaled their intention to reserve time for their families.
Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has seven children and has said she wants to work from home occasionally, though the ambitious CDU politician has already found time to visit troops in Afghanistan and begin profiling herself as a potential successor to Merkel.
The chancellor’s former chief of staff Ronald Pofalla has been criticized for citing family reasons for his resignation even as he was quietly lining up a high-paying job at German rail operator Deutsche Bahn.
Reporting by Stephen Brown; Editing by Noah Barkin and Tom Heneghan