A workplace revolution: a four-day week?

THE FOUR-DAY working week might be on its way within the lifetime of those of us currently studying at universities up and down the country.

A few weeks ago, Frances O’Grady, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), called for the introduction of a four-day working week within this century. While this would represent a significant shift in Britain’s cultural and economic norms, it is still some way behind the predictions of the eminent economist, John Maynard Keynes. Back in 1930 he envisaged that his grandchildren’s generation would work a 15-hour week.

The logic behind a four-day working week (with pay remaining equivalent to a fie day week) is relatively straightforward. Advances in technology are helping drive increases in productivity and in many cases, making human labour redundant.

Naturally, trade unions want members to be the beneficiaries of such changes by affording UK workers an extra day off each week rather that merely increasing the payoffs for bosses and shareholders. They argue that such a break is needed because, of all full-time workers across the EU, only Austrian and Greek workers do longer hours than those in the UK.

The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, is reported to be working with the economist, Lord Skidelsky, on the possible implications of a four-day working week. While the details of Labour’s plans are unclear, many party members will be hoping for the inclusion of such a proposal in the party’s manifesto at the next general election.

The Green Party, which has often acted as an out-rider on the left of British politics, committed at the 2017 general election to “phase in a four-day working week”, with the then-leader of the party, Caroline Lucas, claiming: “when people are exhausted, their productivity goes down”.

Critics have pointed out that in the modern economy, millions of workers don’t work a standard fie day week anyway, with irregular hours, part-time jobs, zero hour contracts and shift work all prevalent. Others have claimed that margins are so tight for many companies, particularly small businesses, that any reduction in working hours is simply unfeasible and would cause widespread economic damage.

This view is countered by Perpetual Guardian, a New Zealand company dealing with trusts and wills, that recently implemented the option of a four-day week (with full pay) for its entire staff. After a trial, the firm found that an extra day of rest increased productivity and reduced stress, with ‘no downside’ found. It decided to make the option of a four-day week a permanent feature earlier this year.

Placed in a historical context, the campaign to reduce the working week appears to be the natural evolution of workers’ rights, following on from numerous struggles since the Industrial Revolution to improve conditions at work, including the right to paid holidays and weekends. However, for the moment, any attempts to reduce the working week by an extra day still seem fairly inchoate, albeit there are signs of progress with the issue entering mainstream debate in the past few months.

The finer details of any plans, such as how exactly to implement a shorter working week and by how much hourly wages would need to increase to compensate, are far from clear and need to be further developed.

The most effective way to introduce it is to gain greater grassroots support among the public and get the Labour Party onside on a more committed basis. If a party were to embrace the concept, the TUC’s aim, and Keynes’s prediction, would be a step closer to reality.