(4 November 2022) Working time reduction and the potential for a four-day week are issues that are moving up the trade union agenda. Last month, the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) organised a conference to debate these issues.
Trade union representatives, business leaders, policy makers and academics from across Europe took part to discuss the pros and cons of a 4-day working week. Joe Ryle, coordinator of a 4-day week pilot programme involving over 70 companies in the UK, kicked off by outlining progress with the initiative and underlining that in the mid-term assessment of the project, 86% of organisations were already indicating that they would maintain the 4-day week at the end of the pilot. Joan Sanchis (Economist and Policy Advisor in the regional government of Valencia in Southeastern Spain) explained the authority’s three-year programme of financial support for businesses wanting to pilot the 4-day working week. With a total budget of 1.5 million Euros, the programme allows companies to apply for a subsidy provided they reduce the working time to 32 hours spread over 4 days per week. Those benefiting from the subsidy must ensure that the wages are not affected by the working time reduction and that there is a formal consultation with workers.
In addition, the Mayor of the city of Valencia has announced a one-month pilot of a 4-day working week for the whole city in Spring 2023. This would be done, at least partially, by moving some annual public holidays to the pilot month. Sanchis said that expectations were that these initiatives would help reduce work-related stress while improving work-life balance. There is also an argument that the overall carbon footprint may go down with a decline in work-related travel and people having the time to opt for ‘slower lifestyles.’ Moreover, economic output may not fall, considering the evidence of increase in productivity from working time reduction – a point also made by Joe Ryle.
Dagný Aradóttir Pind from the BSRB public service trade union federation in Iceland echoed Sanchis’ remarks, arguing that the 4-day week programme in Iceland, running since 2021, has been quite successful. In 2020, the federation successfully negotiated a substantial reduction in weekly working hours without any reduction in wages. Pind remarked that while there were issues in implementation, they were mostly transitional problems. Some older workers were initially resistant to change, fearing pressures to be more productive. However, many were eventually persuaded of the benefits when they realised that they got more time with families and to pursue hobbies. Pind argued that a 4-day work week can also improve gender equality by reducing the need to substitute full-time work with part-time work and so reducing the share of women having to choose part-time work to cover caring responsibilities.
José Soeiro, sociologist and Portuguese MP, cautioned that a 4-day working week can also have an adverse effect on gender equality. Children may end up spending more time at home and thus under informal care, if primary schools and care centres are only operational for 4 days a week. We know that informal care is overwhelmingly performed by women while the gender ratio is less skewed in formal care. Soeiro argued that this is not necessarily an argument against a 4-day work week but highlights the various ripple effects that need to be considered by the Portugese government, which is currently deliberating on a 4-day work week pilot programme. Broadly speaking, Soeiro too is in favour of a 4-day work week provided it reduces working time without cutting wages.
Gary Conroy is the founder and chief executive of 5 Squirrels, a skin care company based in UK, and one of the 70 companies in the pilot scheme in the UK. Conroy argued that the reduction in working time, without any corresponding cut in wages, has led to employees becoming more productive, while making fewer errors, and collaborating better. He admitted that a lot of micro-management was required initially to improve productivity such as monitoring meeting times and evaluating workflows to minimize overlaps.
Johanna Wenckebach, Director of the Hugo Sinzheimer Institute for Labour Law in the Hans Böckler Foundation in Germany, was more sceptical about the 4-day work week proposal. She argued that employers often argued for a 4-day work week to improve profitability through productivity gains rather than to reduce work-related stress. Such proposals, being made on grounds of flexibility, may translate into longer working hours and greater work-life conflicts according to Wenckebach
Clarisse Van Tichelen from the CNE Union in Belgium also pointed out that reducing the number of working days may not necessarily mean a reduction in working time. In fact, the working time can increase. The Belgian government announced its plans in February 2022 to pass a legislation that will allow full-time employees to choose to work normal hours over four days instead of five, after getting a written approval from their employer. This implies that the daily working time limit will increase to 9.5 hours per day. Several experiences show that those working 4 days for longer hours, inevitably end up coming on the 5th day too, and thus work overtime. Peppina Beeli of the UNIA Union in Switzerland made a similar point, arguing that the focus should be on ‘working time reduction’ rather than on ‘flexibility’. UNIA prefers a broader approach to working time reduction, rather than a narrow focus on 4-day working week. Another worry is that it is unclear how such a proposal can be implemented in sectors such as healthcare. Hospitals cannot be closed for 3 days in a week and so a 4-day work week would inevitably mean more shifts and a greater demand for workers in a sector that is already plagued by shortages.
Sophie Jänicke of the German engineering union IG Metall explained how the union had negotiated innovative deals on working time that included the right of individual workers to move to a 28-hour week. She said that while IG Metall was continuing to look at working time reduction, the issue was less of a priority as the union focused on tackling the cost-of-living crisis. Meanwhile, the CGT trade union confederation was developing its campaign for a 32-hour working week with international officer Denis Meynant arguing that it was important to try to achieve European coordination around the issue.
The debate on 4-day work week is far from over and which way it leans will heavily depend on results from the pilot programmes currently underway. One consensus amongst all participants at the conference was that any such proposal should lead to real working time reduction, without affecting wages. Moreover, the ultimate objective of such proposals should be a reduction in work-related stress and improved work-life balance.