A 4 Day Work Week May Be The Only Way Forward – Labour Article
In recent polls, Britons have made it eminently clear that they have no interest in returning to the pre-pandemic economy, replete with stark inequality, precarity and rampant individualism. With imminent and catastrophic job losses accompanying the end of the furlough scheme, however, the new normal looks bleak. In the face of these challenges, we must seriously consider policies that could offer a solution. A 4 day work week is one such policy.
In the fallout of the current crisis, proposals for a 4 day work week have gained traction in the Western World. Global lockdowns and working from home have forced many to reassess their work-life balance, and demonstrated to governments the feasibility of shorter, more flexible working hours.
Closer to home, it was proposed last year by Ex-Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell as an ethical alternative to entrenched economic policies that fetishise profit for the few over the well-being of the many. It is a tested strategy to aid labour markets with systemic issues, as well as sudden crises.
Proposals for a 4 day work week are the latest example in a broader push for something called Working Time Reduction (WTR), which inspired the inception of the Labour party. Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, reducing working hours has been the objective of much collective action. It has been part and parcel of the same drive to ameliorate the conditions of the working-class that also called for an end to child labour and exploitation in the workplace.
It is only since – surprise surprise– the Thatcher years that this general trend was arrested. Britain now lags behind almost all of Europe.
According to a 2019 report by economist, Lord Skidelsky, these reforms also are almost always brought about by industrial collective action (read: unions). Weakening unions are in part due to a national shift from an industrial economy to a service industry in which productivity increases are harder to come by and workers are harder to organize. However, Thatcher’s war on the unions, shrinking of the state and low investment ratios are clear culprits.
Furthermore, Tory policies continue to push people into precarious and unproductive work.
In the wake of the 2008 recession, austerity failed to prevent poverty and reduce any chance of a reduction in working hours. Indeed, before the pandemic 56% of people in poverty were employed! What makes this so damning, and more than a touch ironic, is that rather than austerity, WTR is a better strategy for economic crisis management.
The sharing of jobs has historically been used to reduce unemployment and poverty. What this means in the current crisis, is that people work fewer hours and the hours of work are distributed more evenly amongst those who need it.
Reducing working hours shouldn’t lead to a fall in wages. We must have redistribution of wealth in Britain if it is to work. Otherwise, it is just a reorganization of already precarious and low paid work, leading to further poverty.
Therefore, a four-day work week, done correctly, would push up rates of productivity, reduce poverty and make the British economy more competitive. It is one of many progressive economic policies proposed recently that should be incorporated into the Government’s Coronavirus reform programme.
Beyond purely financial benefits, WTR also helps support us to live more sustainable and ethical lives. If we were to reduce consumption, the benefits of increased productivity could be channelled instead into improving quality of life and starting us down the path to mending our exploitative relationship to the environment.
It also affords more time for the sharing of unpaid family labour that is currently undervalued in our economy. It goes some way to redressing inequality, as carers of children and the elderly, (an issue of gender thrown into stark relief by the pandemic) are more able to to work.
The crux of it is this: reducing the amount people must work to make a living is not only a sound economic policy it is also an ethical imperative. Faced with a crisis-ridden economy, WTR not not only offers a path out of the current problems. It also points towards a better and more ethical normal – one that Britain wants and needs.
Written by Guest Labour Writer, Marco Dryburgh
Point of Information
The right idea for the wrong reason – A Liberal Response
I agree with Marco that there are certain benefits to a 4-day working week. It will have a significant positive impact on the mental health of the employed. Allowing more time for ‘life’ whether it be social outings, spending time with family members or simply focusing on oneself. I believe that a shorter work week will actually increase productivity in all areas of the economy, as people will be able to recuperate for longer and can spread their energy across a shorter week.
However, my main concern is Marco’s discussion about how a shorter working week will improve equality within the work force. I struggle to see how these two can correlate. Although I do not support economic inequality, we live in a capitalist economy. There are measures in place to try and reduce the gap, but ultimately we live in a free-market. Those who work to be at the top of their field are rewarded (and obviously those who get somewhat lucky). It is inevitable that there will be both economic and social inequality in our political and economic system. The amount of working days will not affect that.
As the UK economy shifts away from industrial to services, we are going to see an even greater gap. Those who are able to get a better education are more likely to get a higher-paid job, and (to an extent) be more successful. Unfortunately, that is how our system works. Whether it is fair or not depends on who you ask. But changing the number of working days will have little impact on the structure of the capitalist system.
I do not mean to diminish Marco’s thoughts as he does raise some excellent points. London, being a financial hub, often loses focus on the bigger picture in life. Not every aspect of our lives revolves around work. A shorter working week will help improve the balance between pleasure and necessity.
Written by Senior Liberal Writer, Charlie Papamichael.
The hidden dangers of a 4 day work week would be too catastrophic – A Conservative Response
As both Marco and Charlie highlight, the main reason people love the idea of a 4 day working week is the supposed benefits to a workforce’s morale and general mental well being. However, I believe these, along with other supposed benefits, are massively over exaggerated and conceal hidden dangers.
The structure of the idea is replacing five eight-hour shifts with four ten-hour shifts – the ‘4/10’ idea. Thus, the actual work time remains the same but just condensed. A study in Ohio found the risk of suffering an industrial accident rises by 37% in employees working 12 or more hours a day. A 4 day week means people are forced to work longer and harder days. Thus, compressing the same workload into a much shorter timeframe.
The burden of squeezing work into longer days will have detrimental impacts on employees mental health. It increases the chances of suffering chronic fatigue and various other stress related illnesses. A former Utah governor introduced a mandatory 4 day working week for every state employer in 2008. However, later reversed the legislation due to the lack of benefits it produced.
Whilst some studies do support Marco’s claims about increased productivity, I do not believe this will be successful long term. Having an extra day each week for rest and recuperation will not sufficiently balance the stress of the other 4 days. Especially in older workers. This will lead to a downturn of productivity in my eyes and, possibly, even people seeking retirement earlier.
COVID-19 means unemployment in the UK is rising monumentally and will continue to do so for some time. This in itself will be detrimental to the British economy and millions of families. However, the way to solve this is not a 4 day working week. Going back to work may never be the same as it was. Those who do return to work should not be subject to a compressed schedule. This will not benefit the UK’s recovery.
Written by Senior Conservative Writer, Emer Kelly
I’m a third-year History and Arabic student at the University of Manchester, and have just returned to London after an abortive year abroad learning Arabic in Jordan (thanks, Covid). Travelling and living abroad in a country and culture as different to ours as Jordan’s is without the obligatory reflection of your own values and priorities is impossible.
I am a first year student reading Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Exeter. After completing my degree, I wish to go on to study Public Policy at a postgraduate level.
I am a second year student currently reading International Relations and Modern Languages at the University of Exeter.