BEIJING, March 25 -- China announced Saturday that the country's workweek will be reduced to five days, in a move to ease traffic, provide jobs for the staggering ranks of unemployed, and enable workers to enjoy more free time in the tradition of the West. The current Chinese workweek is 44 hours, the equivalent of eight hours a day, five days a week, with a half-day of work on the sixth day. The announcement by the Cabinet-level State Council gives China the same 40-hour, 5-day workweek that is standard in the United States and many other developed countries. Premier Li Peng signed the decree, effective May 1. However the regulations note those ventures claiming special difficulties will be given a grace period to initiate the new schedule. 'No one shall extend working hours without authorization,' the State Council said. Government institutions unable to comply have until January 1, 1996, and businesses until May 1, 1997. 'Since the 1970s, developed countries have been putting the five-day workweek into effect,' said the People's Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper. 'The new system reflects the government's concern for ordinary workers,' the newspaper said. Given the option of an increase in salary or additional time off, 80 percent of those surveyed preferred more leisure, the paper said. The decree is also aimed at improving productivity, easing traffic congestion and boosting employment. While official figures placed urban unemployment at 2.9 percent last year, Western analysts say the actual rate was more than 20 percent, with the ranks of jobless escalating by 15 to 17 percent annually.
Speeding up bankruptcies of hemorrhaging state firms and ridding the monoliths of antiquated social burdens could more than double the toll of unemployed from the sector this year, labor officials warn. The cutback in the workweek will open new jobs 'in the service and tourism industries and give impetus to the development of tertiary industries,' the People's Daily said, in the drive to absorb laid-off staff.