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South Africans are among the hardest workers in the world

Quartz africa
Quartz africa

South Africans may be some of the hardest workers in the world—they’re three times more likely to work 60 hours a week than Americans.

On average, South African employees work 43.3 hours per week, the fifth hardest working country in a sample of countries by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Turkey has the employees who work the most hours, followed by Colombia, Mexico and Costa Rica. Comparatively, Germans, Danes, Norwegians and Dutch worked the fewest.

Nearly 12% of the South African workforce spent more than 60 hours per week on the job. This is despite the fact that South Africa’s labor laws prohibit more than 45 hours per week and no more than 10 hours in overtime.

South Africa’s hardest workers are black men younger than 45 in a semi-skilled occupation and lucky enough to have a permanent job in a country with high unemployment, according to a study (pdf) from Stellenbosch University’s Bureau for Economic Research.

There has been a steady increase in the number of formal employees who more than 40 hours a week, says the study. There is also an increasing gap between hours worked in the public and private sector. That is likely due to the lack of competition in the public sector and perhaps an unwillingness to flout labor laws.

Average hours worked per week in South Africa, 1997-2011

Industry Average hours by industry
Mining 45.3
Wholesale and retail 44.7
Financial and business services 43.7
Transport and communication 43.6
Manufacturing 43.3
Electricity, gas, and water supply 42.6
Construction 42.2
Social services 40.8

Working hours were also shorter in the economic capital, Gauteng province and the Western Cape, which has a concentration of highly-skilled workers. The average working hours in these more affluent provinces is affected by migration from other provinces. The Eastern Cape also had some of the lowest working hours, but that was because so few people had permanent employment in the impoverished province.

A closer look at working South Africans’ work habits reveals that women are also likely to work shorter hours, because they tend to be more educated and work in the professional sector. That, however, also shows the limits of the data used.

The OECD and Bosch studies exclude the informal sector, such as agriculture, domestic work and other low-income jobs. These forms of work, like farmhands and maids, are a huge source of employment in South Africa, albeit precarious and poorly paid. They are ignored by these surveys, which rely on formal employment data.

In 2000, Statistics South Africa released a standalone time use study (pdf). No later study exists, but the study revealed the limits of how we measure hard work. Taking into account informal types of work not measured by these standardized surveys, women spent 23% of their day working, as opposed to men at 19%.

South African women without a housekeeper spend 183 minutes per day on housework, as opposed to 75 minutes for men. Women living with children also spent an average of 87 minutes per day taking care of them, compared to men, who spent seven minutes.

Current working hours studies also excluded domestic labor like fetching water, which added 44 to 71 minutes per day of work, depending on the distance to the main water source. Black households in former bantustans or rural areas were most likely to be affected. Once again, it was mainly women who bore the burden of this unpaid work, starting in childhood.

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