Four gains from a four day week
Fewer hours working for the same pay – this is the type of utopian future Plaid Cymru is fighting for
This article was published in Wales Online on Tuesday 21 September, and was written by Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson for the economy, Luke Fletcher MS
What would you give for a four day working week on the same pay? We’re not talking about condensed hours – we’re talking about one less day working, but for the same pay.
You might think this is the type of utopian future that you can only dream of. Well, in the Senedd today (Wednesday 22 September) Plaid Cymru will be calling on the Welsh Government to run a pilot for a four day week.
The catch? There isn’t one. You see, the benefits aren’t just for the individual worker – a four day working week makes sense in so many different ways: economically, the environmentally and it’s also good for our communities. Let’s go through the benefits:
Good for you
We’ll start with the obvious one. Less time spent working, is good for our physical and mental health. Did you know that one in four sick days in the UK are the result of workload? It’s the biggest single cause of sick leave by some distance. Remember, what we’re proposing isn’t condensing the same hours into 4 days, we’re proposing a reduced working week, immediately cutting levels of overwork and stress.
And in households where there are two workers, this gives them both an extra day to help share the unpaid work burden – the cleaning, caring and general life admin that often falls heavier on women. In fact, while a four day working week will benefit every worker, women would be expected to benefit more, since they are generally more ‘time poor’ – in every European country, men have more daily leisure time than women. In the UK, women can complete almost two hours more unpaid work per day than men.
Good for the economy
This is surely where the catch is, right? If everyone works fewer hours, then productivity, followed by profitability falls? Not according to, well, real life.
Back in 1930, the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that a hundred years on, employees would work no more than 15 hours per week – reasoning that rapid technological advancements would liberate the workforce, providing more time for leisure. One aspect of this prediction appears to have been accurate. By 2030, conservative estimates project that 30% of existing jobs will have been lost to automation.
But, stubbornly, the present day working mantra still seems to be “put in the extra hours to get the work done”, despite the growing realisation that increased hours rarely translate into gains in overall output.
What if the benefits of automaton are shared equitably across society? A shorter working week is one way of both minimising the threat of people being replaced by machines, and also sharing the spoils of technological progress.
Still not convinced? Well, once again we can peer into that crystal ball known as “other countries” and see that a four day working week has been hailed as an “overwhelming success” – in Iceland, to be precise. There, it was found that not only did productivity stay the same, it actually improved in some workplaces. This is backed up by the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), who found that in countries in which people work fewer hours on average, productivity is higher.
So when working long hours reduces productivity, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that working reduced hours increases productivity.
Good for the environment
Acting on climate change has never been more popular in the UK, with 8 in 10 people either ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ concerned about climate change. We care about our planet, and anything that’s going to help should be taken seriously.
Reducing working days from 5 to 4 immediately reduces our carbon footprint. In fact, analysis shows that shifting to a four-day working week without loss of pay could shrink the UK’s carbon footprint by 127 million tonnes per year by 2025. This represents a reduction of 21.3% and is more than the entire carbon footprint of Switzerland. It is also equivalent to taking 27 million cars off the road - effectively the entire UK private car fleet.
A four day working week also reduces energy consumption, reduces polluting traffic on the roads, and gives people more time in their home, where they are more likely to engage in home cooking, instead of consuming energy intensive ready-meals.
Good for your community
When people have more time to spend at home, it creates the opportunity and circumstances that would better enable people across Wales to contribute to their community. This could be just in giving them more time at home, which means they are more likely to buy local or it could be that we see greater levels of volunteering, business start-ups or social innovations.
With more free time at employees’ disposal, we may also see greater levels of democratic engagement either in the workplace, neighbourhood, or community, with people holding local and regional policymakers more effectively to account.
Again, we can look to other countries for evidence of this happening. Utah ran a year-long experiment of shifting state employees to a four- day working week, and they found increased levels of volunteering. In fact, this finding was unexpected, but it does sustain the idea that many workers want to be more involved in transforming society for the better and will do so when given the chance.
So when you consider all these benefits, set against the threat of automaton and the need to build back ‘different’ after the COVID-19 pandemic, Plaid Cymru believes that the solution requires us to think big. After all, as TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady has said: “In the nineteenth century, unions campaigned for an eight-hour day. In the twentieth century, we won the right to a two-day weekend and paid holidays. So, for the twenty-first century, let’s lift our ambition again. I believe that in this century we can win a four-day working week, with decent pay for everyone.”
Radical thinking is what is needed for these times which are both post-pandemic and pre-automaton revolution. And with the right political will, Wales could lead the way.