A huge number of South Africans are working 50 hours weeks – but are we being productive?

South Africans have a reputation for being some of some of the hardest workers in the world – but just because we’re known to put in the hours, does it mean we’re actually being productive?

Data from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) shows that, while South Africans do put in the extra hours – there are many other countries who work harder, and others are simply more productive.

The latest ILO statistics for South Africa (2018) shows that a significant portion of our labour force of 16.4 million works more than 49 hours a week (21% – or about 3.5 million people). However, the majority of workers still fall into the 40-48 hour range.

This range is in line with South African labour laws, which puts the maximum normal working time allowed at 45 hours weekly – or nine hours per day – and is the most common range for workers around the world.

This is true for both men and women in South Africa – though the data shows that more men (25%) than women (16%) tend to work past the regulated amount (49 hours+), while women are also more likely to work half-days (11%), compared to men (6%) in South Africa.

South Africa’s working hours

Working hours Men Women Total
No hours 1.3% 2.3% 1.7%
1 to 14 hours 2.0% 3.3% 2.6%
15 to 29 hours 5.9% 11.2% 8.2%
30 to 34 hours 2.6% 4.1% 3.3%
35 to 39 hours 3.2% 5.7% 4.3%
40 to 48 hours 59.8% 57.6% 58.8%
49 hours or more 25.3% 15.8% 21.1%

South Africa vs the world

According to the ILO’s data around 20% of the world’s working population put in more than 49 hours in a week, slightly above average.

However these figures exclude massive working populations in India and China, which do not make this data available.

Among the countries that do track working hours, Pakistan tops the list in 2018, with 40% of the population putting in over 49 hours a week (over 24 million people in its 60 million-strong workforce).

This is in stark contrast to nations such as Bulgaria, Lithuania and Belrus, were around only 2% of workers exceed 49 hours a week.

Working hours and productivity

Notably, hours worked is not necessarily directly related to productivity (employees can spend a long time doing very little). So another metric can be used to show how productive workers are in relation to the time spent working.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) uses GDP per hour worked as a measure to track actual employee productivity in a given country.

This measures how efficiently labour input is combined with other factors of production and used in the production process (measured in US$).

So while the OECD ranks Mexican workers as some of the hardest workers in terms of hours spent working (2,148 hours a year), they only generate around $107 per hour spent working (ranking on the lower end of productivity).

South Africa isn’t listed in the OECD’s measure, but the group does have weekly working hour data that shows the average local worker is on the job for 42.9 hours a week – or 8.6 hours a day.

Considering there are 250 working days in the South African business calendar (excluding weekends and public holidays), it’s fair to extrapolate this data to say the average worker puts in 2,145 hours a year – second only to Mexico.

In terms of productivity, however, the OECD tracks South African employees at contributing $98 per hour worked – the second-lowest among countries where data is available (above only Greece).

Local workers put in the hours, but have very low productivity, the data shows.

The OECD notes that labour input is defined as total hours worked of all persons engaged in production, and only partially reflects the productivity of labour in terms of the personal capacities of workers or the intensity of their effort.

The ratio between the output measure and the labour input depends to a large degree on the presence and/or use of other inputs (e.g. capital, intermediate inputs, technical, organisational and efficiency change, economies of scale), it said.


Read: South African unemployment jumps to a 16-year high of 29%

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A huge number of South Africans are working 50 hours weeks – but are we being productive?