BERLIN -- The head of the German metal industry association on Monday rejected calls for a shorter working week for the east German steel industry after workers voted at the weekend to strike over the issue from June 2.
Engineering union IG Metall had urged 7,000 members in the east German steel industry to back a strike to demand a cut in weekly working hours to 35 from the current 38 to bring the region into line with western Germany, where workers already have a 35-hour week.
Martin Kannegiesser, head of the Gesamtmetall employers' federation, said shortening the working week would add significantly to costs for the industry in the still economically depressed former communist east.
"They are not strong enough. The east is still a relatively new industrial center in European and certainly world terms, and still has to find its place in the European and world economies," he told German radio.
The dispute comes as unions step up pressure on Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to water down his Agenda 2010 reform plan, which seeks to encourage growth by loosening restrictions on hiring and firing staff and cutting social security benefits.
IG Metall said some 83 percent of its members at 17 steel companies including Arcelor unit Eko Stahl voted for the strike, well above the required 75 percent threshold.
A further 16,000 union members at 85 metal and engineering firms including two Volkswagen AG plants in the state of Saxony are due to start a separate three-day strike ballot on Monday.
IG Metall, which represents a total of some 310,000 workers in eastern Germany, says the gap between working hours in east and west, originally agreed to make up for the gap in productivity between the two sides, is increasingly unjustified given productivity advances by eastern German plants.
It is calling for the gradual harmonization of working hours across Germany but has said the process could be spread over several years.