A Four-Day Working Week Is Possible Because It's Already Happening

While radical experiments in some companies can demonstrate the benefits of working less, a real revolution in working time will need to come from the workers who demand it
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The debate on the four-day week has moved to the next phase. We are no longer discussing why we should reduce working time but are thinking about how best to go about it. Recent evidence from Spain, the Netherlands, Germany and the UK show that a reduction in working time is possible. Not because some companies in isolation have started experiments, but because employees are asking for more time in their lives, and more quality time at that. The four-day week is not some faraway utopia, it will become a reality in the not too distant future, but it may well require a fight.

In Spain, the well-know department store chain ‘El Corto Ingles’ has recently settled on an agreement which not only reduce the working hours of their staff, but also improve the quality of working time. Working hours were previously completely unpredictable and employees often ended up working consecutive long hour days. To respond to this, the agreement put a limitation on atypical working hours and an annual decrease of working time by 28 hours. Not a revolution, but it shows that less working time can go hand in hand with more qualitative working time.

‘Would you want to earn less for working less’, is a typical argument from adversaries of a 4-day week. However in Austria and Germany, they’re actually giving employees the choice between time and money. In 2016, Deutsche Bahn signed an agreement with the trade union EVG with the following choices for employees: a pay increase of 2.6%, a reduction of the weekly working hours by approximately one hour, or 6 days of extra paid holidays. About half chose the money and the other half opted for extra days of vacation. Barely 2% opted for the reduction in weekly working hours. Interestingly, Deutsche Bahn had to employ nearly 1,500 employees to compensate for all employees who took extra holidays (Marion 2018).

The experiment was evaluated positively and was copied by Deutsche Post in 2018. An agreement with the trade union Ver.di gives the choice to 130,000 employees to convert a 5.1% wage increase (in part or entirely) into extra holidays.

Slowly but surely, working time can be reduced by providing employees with the choice between time and money. The popularity of the ‘time’ option shows its usefulness. But choosing between time and money is not always simple, so what about receiving time and money?

In the Netherlands, the trade union FNV Security reached an agreement in September 2018 to give 30,000 employees a wage increase and a working time reduction of two hours per week (from 38 to 36 hours). A small step for the security sector maybe, but a clear step towards making a four-day week reality. But the security agents didn’t get this reduction for free. It required mobilisation and a historic first national strike of security agents.

In April of this year, Deutsche Telekom reached a similar agreement covering its 55,000 employees: a pay increase of around 5% and a reduction of working hours of two hours per week. Also here, the average working week is cut from 38 to 36 hours. However in this case the reduction takes the shape of an extra 16 days off.

And for the last example we go to the country where the debate on the 4-day week is currently heating up: the United Kingdom. Here, the trade union CWU signed an agreement with Royal Mail in January that gives a two-hour weekly working time reduction (from 39 to 37) over the next two years and a wage increase of 2%. By 2020, a 35-hour week is to be reached, staying only a little short of a genuine 4-day week.

In summary, many companies and sectors have taken decisive steps towards a reduction in working time. While the four-day week is still far away, it’s on the horizon. While radical experiments in some companies can demonstrate the benefits of working less, a real revolution in working time will need to come from the workers who demand it. And for this, one needs creativity and perseverance. Creativity to envisage the best fits for certain companies and sectors. Perseverance because no real reduction in working time came cheap. It requires convincing, organizing and eventually mobilizing people and support.

Stan De Spiegelaere is a researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI)