The coronavirus pandemic has reignited debate in Germany about cutting the working week to four days to help preserve jobs during and after the economic shock.

But the idea remains highly controversial.

The president of Germany's powerful metalworkers union IG Metall, Joerg Hofmann, started a national conversation by proposing the measure at a time when fears about unemployment are rising, as they are across the world.

Before the pandemic pummelled the global economy, Germany boasted a record low unemployment level of around five percent.

By July, the rate had climbed to 6.4 percent.

German Labour Minister Hubertus Heil, a member of the centre-left Social Democrats, has signalled he is open to moving away from a traditional five-day working week.

"Reduced hours with some wage compensation may be an appropriate measure," he said this week.

The basic idea is that in working less, employees share more of the jobs that are fading away.

Such a move could be the answer to the structural changes hitting sectors such as the car industry, which faces a "digital acceleration due to the pandemic", the IG Metall boss told the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung at the weekend.

Hofmann, whose union represents more than two million workers, also said that for those switching to a shorter week, salary cuts should be kept in check so as not to cause a fall in purchasing power.

This isn't IG Metall's first battle on working hours, and its achievements have often set the benchmark for employees in other industries.

In 1995, it won a 35-hour working week. In 2018, the union won the right for employees to opt to work only 28 hours a week for two years, with only a limited decrease in pay.

Its latest proposal is supported by 60 percent of Germans, according to a YouGov poll published on Wednesday.

Switching to a shorter week will only worsen "the enormous productivity shock" caused by the pandemic, says the head of the German employers' federation
Switching to a shorter week will only worsen "the enormous productivity shock" caused by the pandemic, says the head of the German employers' federation AFP / Ina FASSBENDER

Germany's far-left Die Linke party wants to go even further, urging a reduction of working hours to 30 a week without a loss of pay.

But employers appear reluctant to jump on board.

Switching to a shorter week will only worsen "the enormous productivity shock" being suffered at the moment, according to Steffen Kampeter, director of the employers' federation BDA.

"The longer the crisis lasts, the more we must find intelligent solutions that do more than just distribute wages and subsidies," Carsten Linnemann, a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative party, told business magazine Wirtschaftswoche.

Several large German companies, such as engineering firm Bosch and carmaker Daimler, have already implemented schemes to reduce working hours, while discussions continue at tyre maker Continental and aerospace giant Airbus.

But in these cases employees have had to make major financial sacrifices.

Back in the 1990s, when Volkswagen introduced a four-day week for some employees to save 30,000 jobs that were at risk when the group was in crisis, those affected had to accept a 10 percent salary cut.

In the beleaguered car industry's current climate, the four-day week would be "neither appropriate nor economically viable", Daimler personnel chief Wilfried Porth said.

Merkel's government ultimately wants to leave it to companies' unions and management to decide the issue.

But if unemployment does not fall quickly, the debate on shorter working hours could become a major issue in next year's federal election campaign.

And the debate isn't confined to Germany.

In France, in addition to trimming work time, the possibility exists of signing "collective performance" agreements to organise schedules with the aim of saving jobs, but at the cost of salary cuts.

And in Austria, the Social Democrats have proposed a plan to reduce working time by 20 percent with a parallel reduction of five percent in net pay, according to the public channel ORF.