- Interview by
- Àngel Ferrero
Recent trials of a four-day week in Iceland have shown the merits of a shorter working week. Working less — without loss of pay — makes us less stressed and with more time to do what we really want. The effects on our behavior could make this a key measure in stopping climate change — and even boost productivity. Thanks to a proposal from the left-wing Más País, Spain is now set to be the next country to conduct trials of a thirty-two-hour or four-day week.
Héctor Tejero, who is political coordinator for Más País, spoke to Àngel Ferrero about his party’s proposal for a shorter working week, and how it can turn from a pilot scheme into the reality for most workers.
In January, your group in the Spanish parliament published its bill for a pilot scheme cutting the working week to thirty-two hours, or four days instead of five. What exactly does this involve — and what is the current status of this project?
The pilot aims to take a small number of firms (around two hundred to four hundred) and study what effects it would have, both for the workers and the companies, if we cut working hours without loss of pay. There’s evidence that fewer hours brings improvements in workers’ quality of life, and their mental and physical health. That could also mean things like increases in companies’ productivity, a better work-life balance, and a lower environmental impact.
But as things stand, this data comes from only a few companies, in very specific sectors and across countries with different cultures and working environments. So, the pilot would use a randomized controlled trial, to obtain better evidence.
The idea is to recruit volunteers among companies who want to reduce working hours, give them financial support and compare their results over time with companies that have not reduced hours. That will offer us better information on the advantages but also the problems that workers and firms may face. We are currently negotiating the project with the Spanish government’s Ministry of Industry. The aim is that the trial should begin to be designed as soon as possible and then support will reach the firms involved at the end of 2021 or the start of 2022.
Politically, the idea of a “pilot project” — rigorously testing the effects — has allowed us to introduce this debate onto the agenda in Spain. According to a survey we commissioned, 62 percent of the population is aware of the proposal to reduce the workweek to four days or thirty-two hours.
And, paradoxically, we believe that part of the reason it got so high on the agenda was because we proposed it as a limited experiment and not as a generalized proposal. Now, the debate that has begun is not about the pilot itself, but about the use of time, the need to work less, and so on. In this sense, the pilot has been a bit of a Trojan horse to introduce a much more ambitious cultural debate.
Your party lists a long list of advantages of a shorter workweek: from workers’ physical and mental well-being to their family life and even the possibility of increasing their participation in Spanish democracy. What impact would it have on the labor market?
Indeed, the main reason for promoting the pilot is the multiple benefits that have already been observed where it has been tested. And, well, the spirit of taking up a historical labor movement demand. Spain was one of the first countries in the world to achieve the eight-hour working day, in 1919, after a very tough strike in Barcelona called by the anarchist-led CNT [National Confederation of Labor] union.
Recently, the International Labour Organization published a report showing that excessive working hours (over fifty-five hours) are associated with much higher risks of dying from cardiovascular incidents. And in a 2015 pilot in Gothenburg, Sweden, in which the working day was reduced for caregivers in nursing homes, significant health improvements were observed among those who reduced their hours (less stress, better sleep, etc.).
Personal and family life is another key factor. In our survey, this was the primary advantage that citizens themselves identified in this measure. Today, there is a two-sided care crisis. The most obvious one is the unequal distribution of care and reproduction tasks between men and women. This has also been aggravated by the integration of women into the labor market, which has not been accompanied by the development of a care system as one of the pillars of a modern welfare state.
So, freeing up more time away from work, could help improve that situation. But a more equal distribution of tasks does not necessarily result spontaneously just from reducing working time. So, this policy fits within a gender perspective but will also require complementary public policies and cultural changes.
There’s also the question of how to reduce working time, whether by working one day less per week or by working fewer hours per day. In Spain, there has been some debate on this issue, mainly because of how it would affect work-life balance, especially for women with small children.
Our survey found no significant difference between those who preferred to work one day less or less hours per day, but there was a significant gender difference: women had a greater preference for working fewer hours (49 percent) and men for working fewer days (47 percent). Perhaps surprisingly, this mainly owed to women with adult children or women without children, but among women with younger children, the result was close to the average. We are still studying the reasons for these differences (e.g. the prevalence of lower salaries, part-time jobs, etc. among different groups). In any case, this is a perfect example of why the debate needs approaching from a gender perspective.
It would also have an impact on the environment, wouldn’t it?
Más País initially proposed the reduction of working time as a measure against climate change, as part of its Green New Deal proposal. Firstly, because working one day less per week would reduce emissions associated with commuting and also reduce firms’ energy consumption. But it’s also a way for productivity gains to translate into more free time rather than higher consumption.
There are studies that point to an association between more working time and a larger carbon footprint, as people who work less take on more sustainable habits, from walking or taking public transport to work, shopping nearby, cooking at home, and so on.
Our survey showed that the main activities people would spend their free time doing would be resting, being with family and friends, and spending more time on hobbies, i.e. sustainable activities, which would add to the green nature of this measure. The fight to put leisure time and not work at the center of our lives is one of the key cultural battles for building truly sustainable societies — and a key measure to move toward post-growth economies.
You even talk about positive consequences for the economy in general.
There are two big “economic” issues. The first is how cutting hours affects productivity. According to mainstream economic theory, such a reduction can only occur when a firm’s productivity increases (due to changes in production or technological renewal). This productivity gain can be shared with workers, either by increasing total wages or reducing hours without loss of pay. Cutting working hours has also often been spoken of as a way to combat the “technological unemployment” that could occur due to automation or digitalization.
However, the reduction of working hours could itself increase productivity — partially “paying” for itself, so to speak. The reason seems to be a combination of attracting talent, more rested workers, greater identification with one’s work, and a lower turnover rate. For us, one of the key aims of the pilot is to try to quantify in which conditions, sectors, and companies this productivity gain occurs.
The other, even more controversial economic question is how reducing hours creates more jobs. Neoclassical economic theory assumes that the amount of employment in an economy is not a “fixed” amount to be shared out like a pie. In other words, a given reduction in working hours does not necessarily lead to proportional increases in employment. This is generally borne out by experiences like the thirty-five-hour week in France, the change from forty-four to forty hours in Portugal in 1996, etc. The reduction does generate employment but proportionally less than the total number of hours reduced.
In addition, there is great variation by sector. In the most “creative” sectors, or those in which productivity can be gained through technology or organizational innovations, job creation will be low or even nil. However, in many sectors of care, education, health, etc., reductions in working hours without hiring additional staff may result in poorer quality of care. In these sectors (many of which are in the public sector), job creation is likely to be higher. Our intention is to design the pilot project in such a way as to shed light on this phenomenon, in a controlled environment.
You have emphasized that there are already positive experiences of reduced working time.
Yes, in Spain we have a couple of well-known examples. One is the Jaen company Software del Sol, which went from forty-hour week to four, nine-hour days at the beginning of 2020. Even despite the lockdown that began in March 2020, the result has been very positive and, it’s still in place. Employee satisfaction is great — and their bottom line has improved.
For the software development department, the working day was reduced from one day to the next and they stopped working on Fridays. However, the sales department had to adapt to working four days but being able to provide service five days a week. This meant hiring more people (around 12 percent extra), which required an investment in materials, training, and recruitment. This department works four days a week but the day off is rotated (one week on Monday, the next on Tuesday, etc.)
But Software del Sol is a classic example of a “creative” technology firm where everyone has the impression, at least, that this change would be relatively easy. When we talk about reducing working hours we always get the same response: “Yes, sure, that will be possible at Google, but what about a bar.” That is why it’s so interesting to look at Madrid’s La Francachela restaurant, where they have cut down to thirty-five hours spread over four days.
Here, the process has been different. The reduction of working hours started as a way to confront the problems of work-life balance and to limit contacts during the pandemic, but has been maintained ever since. They’ve reorganized their way of working: eliminating dishes that required a lot of work in the kitchen and, above all, introducing a method of ordering by WhatsApp from the table itself, so that the time waiters were waiting for customers’ orders is eliminated.
The owners of the company, who are founders of the 4suma! campaign to reduce working hours, decided that this technological and organizational innovation would not involve layoffs but rather reduced hours without a reduction in wages. As in the case of Software del Sol, the experience has been good, the workers are happier and the company’s results have improved.
As was to be expected, the proposal immediately attracted criticism from the Right and the business sector. Can a country like Spain afford such an initiative, particularly amidst the current crisis?
This was to be expected. Beyond the personal (“we are lazy”) or absurd attacks (for example, saying that we want to give money to companies “friendly” to us), there have been two main serious criticisms.
The first is that it would be an unaffordable cost for companies if this is not associated with proportional increases in productivity. Secondly, as with every time any social advance is proposed, we hear that this is “not the right time.” As far as the pilot project itself is concerned, both criticisms make no sense: this is a limited experiment involving companies who volunteer to take part, and will cost a miniscule €50m of public spending.
Also, the idea is to give government support to volunteer companies and compare them with nonvolunteer companies. If the trial is designed well, both types of company would be subject to the same economic situation, so it wouldn’t matter whether we are going through a depression or a bull cycle.
But let’s suppose that these criticisms are directed at the reduction of working hours in a more generalized way. Is the cost for companies bearable? Is now a good time to do it? Más País thinks so. Take a recent study simulating the reduction of working hours from forty hours to thirty-five, via two phases of legislation, covering first large companies and then small companies (as per the Aubry II Law in France in 2000).
It estimates that about 560,000 jobs could be created, i.e. a net increase in employment of 6 percent, a 4.2 percent increase in wages, and, as a consequence of the increase in consumer demand, a 1.55 percent GDP rise. In other words, a reduction in working hours would not only not worsen the recession but could also bring even higher growth.
We propose that the extension of the reduction of working hours should have a first phase which is incentivized and voluntary, targeting those companies more prepared to take this step. The objective is to achieve a sufficient critical mass (perhaps 20-25 percent of companies), after which the implementation would be generalized by law. In this first phase, the role of the trade unions will also be key, introducing the reduction of working hours into collective or company agreements.
We believe that this process would generate less resistance, but also that it would encourage changes in the country’s working culture, and also develop key know-how for the measure to become generalized smoothly. Already now, a recent British survey estimated that 5 percent of companies are implementing the four-day week and a further 17 percent are considering it. In Spain, another survey found that 12 percent of companies would be willing to reduce the working day to four days with no reduction in pay, which amounts to some four hundred thousand companies.
This proposal has also prompted criticism from parts of the Left. Wouldn’t it be better to focus on defending and creating quality, well-paid jobs and full employment?
We think that different social advances aren’t in competition, but advance in combination. Despite its advantages, cutting working time isn’t a magic bullet for all the problems of the labor market. Given Spain’s high levels of structural unemployment and with record levels of youth unemployment in the European Union, we need either policies to create more jobs via changes in the productive model or to move to a paradigm in which fundamental rights, including income, are dissociated from employability.
However, regardless of specific policies, I believe that it is worth changing to a model that, while recognizing the essential nature of work in our societies and avoiding techno-utopian daydreams, places the idea of “having free time” at the center of its ideology, culture, and practices. That means time to be with your loved ones, to devote to your hobbies, to rest, and to be healthy.
I believe that this paradigm is better able to face the great challenges of the coming century than a model that places employability and wage labor as the focus of organizing. Even so, I think working time reduction is important to consider even if your perspective is, indeed, to create a lot of quality employment within a framework of achieving full employment.
What would happen to workers who don’t fit into this work regime — the precarious, the underemployed, and the informally employed?
As I said, cutting working time is no magic bullet, and what you mention is a clear example of that. Beyond specific policies to address these workers’ situations, I believe that the reduction of working hours could have two beneficial effects. One possibility is that the reduction in working hours will result in a decrease of unwanted part-time contracts, as one of the possible ways of “work sharing.”
But I think that there is also another, more important change. In Spain in 2019, 84 percent of those in employment were waged employees and 15 percent self-employed. Among the wage earners, the proportion of part-time workers was 7 percent for men and 23 percent for women. There’s many other types, too, but I think this gives an idea of the importance of the full-time salaried worker as the central axis in the world of work. Improvements in this area will gradually be transferred to the rest of the labor market.
In Spain the average weekly working time in 2019 was 39.3 hours for men and 33.9 for women. This ranges from 36.3 hours for the public sector employee to forty-five hours for the self-employed. But generally, the figures gravitate around the thirty-eight hours for the private sector employee. And I believe that, if working hours are reduced, this will continue to be the case: either by way of cultural convention, so to speak, or through changes in production that will take place in coming years.
For sure, there’s a risk of a new gap between a segment of the working class with good jobs, high education, and high unionization, which would have reduced working hours, and a more precarious segment that would not benefit from these advances. This risk is nothing new in terms of labor rights, but we have to use all means at hand — trade unions, legal and political — to avoid this situation.
What responses have you received from the unions?
In Spain there are two main unions. There is the majority union, the CCOO [the Workers’ Commissions], historically associated with the Communist Party, and then the UGT [General Union of Workers], historically associated with the Socialist PSOE [Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party]. Once the pilot project was approved, we met with both unions to present our proposal. Although they both welcome the idea of a pilot project, for CCOO it is more important to talk about flexibilization of working time rather than a reduction in general.
However, the UGT (which had already proposed the four-day working day in 2018 in a document on the impact of automation and digitalization on the economy) received it with great interest. It has been working for months on the four-day week as one of its key measures for the coming years. The UGT emphasizes that the day when no work is done should preferably be dedicated to workers’ ongoing training of workers.
We do not share this view, but we are getting along very well and doing joint workshops on this issue. It is very important and positive that one of Spain’s two main unions has embraced the reduction of working hours in such a clear way, alongside environmental organizations pushing the boundaries of what is thinkable — and therefore possible.