Credit: Dave C/Flickr, CC 2.0
Across Europe, we are witnessing the rebirth of a centuries-old movement. Work and time are once again becoming sites of major political contestation and shifting the shape of political debate – shown most recently in Irish trade union Fórsa’s conference on working time reduction last week. Whether the cause is embodied by political parties, progressive businesses, trade unions, or national campaigns, working time reduction is fast becoming a new common-sense as a response to a range of deeply embedded and interconnected problems. Crucially however, much of the enthusiasm around the move for shorter hours is underpinned by a belief that it is not just a defensive response to socio-economic issues, but is also transformational in its ability to offer a fundamentally new relationship with work and the promise of a new society.
Innovations in business practice
Small businesses are forming a rapidly growing vanguard in working time experimentation. Just as Henry Ford’s successful implementation of a five-day 40-hour week in 1926 formed the basis of his company’s success and paved the way for other companies to adopt similar practices, innovative companies are experimenting with the four-day week today.
Pursuit Marketing offer an example of how a small organisation can not only survive on shorter hours, but thrive. They are a telephone and digital marketing firm based in Glasgow. Since moving to a four-day week on five-days’ pay two years ago, they have seen an incredible 29.5% improvement in productivity. Across Europe, other enlightened companies have followed suit and begun trials in a move towards making the change permanent. The likes of Radioactive PR in Gloucester, Rheingan's Digital Enabler in Germany, and this week Femma in Belgium have all reduced their hours without decreasing pay.
Unions leading the way
Trade unions have always been at the core of movements for working time reduction. It is because of them we have a two-day weekend and an eight-hour day. This time round is no different: earlier this year IG Metall in Germany won the right to move to a 28 hour working week; the FNV union in the Netherlands has negotiated a series of ‘generational pacts’ (where older workers shorten their hours to open up opportunities for younger workers); and the CGT Union in France have begun to campaign for a 32-hour week.
The European Trade Union Federation have also released a report making the case for a reduction in working time across Europe, whilst the Trades Union Congress in the UK have also published their own report making the case for a four-day week in response to the application of new technologies. Their members are equally supportive, with 81% of workers stating that they would like to reduce their working hours in the future.
Automation: A promise or a threat?
Forecasts for automation have injected the debate with a new urgency. The risks of technological unemployment (up to 30% of UK jobs could be impacted by automation by the early 2030s) presents the need for a largescale reorganisation of work. Automation could and should bring gains for workers, as it can eliminate work that is seen as dull and repetitive, as well as increasing productivity. However there is a risk that the returns from automation are captured by the owners of capital with no gains for workers, in line with the shift of power from capital to labour that has been decades in the making.
Some businesses are tackling this argument head on: Jason Stockwood of Simply Business has moved a call centre down to a four-day week on five-day’s pay after bringing in a new AI system that has increased productivity. He is explicit: “The intention, through doing new things both with and without technology, is to improve efficiency to the point where the operation can run on fewer human hours, and to share the benefits of that change with employees as well as shareholders.”
Meanwhile trade unions are engaging with this on the front line of change. In the UK, the Communication Workers Union won a 35-hour week (down from 39) for the 120,000 postal workers they represent. They did this in direct response to the automation of the parcel packaging process, making the case the benefits accrued from increased productivity as a result of automation should be shared fairly with workers in the form of work-time reduction.
A new political programme?
Within the UK the Green Party have fully committed to the cause by campaigning on the back of a four-day week in the 2017 general election, and have since expanded on their commitment by announcing it would make free time a key measure of UK wellbeing – replacing GDP as a barometer of economic progress. Now the Labour Party have begun to make some serious noise – with John McDonnell revealing that Labour are looking into the practicalities of reducing working hours.
However, changes in working time are not always positive; the countervailing force of a neoliberal policy agenda has sought to erode the free time of workers under the guise of ‘increased flexibility’ leading to the Austrian government passing a bill to raise the maximum working week to 60 hours, and France’s 35-hour week coming under attack. In the UK, Brexit also poses a threat to European regulation like the Working Time Directive, which limits our weeks to 48 hours (although the regulation is very fallible in that workers can – and are often forced to – sign opt-out agreements in their contracts). The lesson to be learned here is that, unless we actively defend and expand our free time, it is vulnerable to the combined threats of the neoliberal establishment.
The demand for a 4 Day Week and a campaign beyond borders
At the New Economics Foundation we have long called for shorter and more flexible hours of paid work, firstly in our report 21 Hours and then in our book Time on Our Side. We are also a member of the European Network for the Fair Sharing of Working Time (funded by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation), along with nearly 70 members from trade unions, political parties, and across civil society. Last month’s annual conference revealed the extent to which working time is becoming a major political issue across the continent.
That is why we are now officially supporting the 4 Day Week Campaign, who believe – like us – that a shorter working week is a practical solution to a series of interconnected and deeply embedded problems in our society.
The Campaign is inspired by the international movements for the 8-Hour Day and the 40-Hour Week which formed the basis of union organisation across the 19th and early 20th centuries. The demand represents an attempt to unify and provide political direction to the sheer number of individuals and organisations across Europe who recognise that our current model of working time is horribly outdated.
Momentum is building within a new movement for working-time reduction. There is a growing belief that the four-day week is the next stage in economic development. However, we must also learn from our history and recognise that working time has always been a contested phenomenon – major reductions did not occur naturally, but were demanded. We must also recognise that our individual freedoms are based in collective action – which is why the debate for shorter hours has to be seen as a systemic change, not an individualised one. Whether in the UK, in Germany, Spain, Poland, or Norway – it is time we form ourselves under a single banner and a demand for a four-day week.