Jonah here. This is part one of a two part series on working time reduction. Part two will be published next weekend.
Workers in the UK are participating in an ambitious experiment with a 32-hour workweek. The pilot project, involving over 3,000 workers in seventy companies, is being organized by 4 Day Week Global, associated with the think tank Autonomy.
The latest in a series of international test cases of a 32-hour week, the project is part of a global push to reduce weekly working hours. In Iceland, between 2015 and 2019, a government-backed, multi-year experiment with a four-day week proved an “overwhelming success,” and led a majority of the workforce to opt for a shorter workweek. Recently, similar experiments have been launched or are under serious consideration in Spain, New Zealand, Scotland, and elsewhere.
A four-day week is not the only approach to reducing working-hours under consideration. In the Swedish city of Gothenburg, for instance, workers at the Svartedalens retirement facility adopted the six-hour workday, as part of a government-sponsored trial. The results were significant improvements in their health and well-being, and a rise in worker engagement and productivity.
Many on the left have found these initiatives to be inspiring and instructive. They see in the four-day week the promise of improved work-life balance and a less dehumanizing work environment; shortening work-hours offers a route to greater gender equality at work, better employee health, and fewer problems of stress, burnout, and overwork. Supporters also argue that cutting the length of the workweek can lead to substantial productivity gains for employers – one of the benefits of having a happier, healthier, and more energized workforce.
These experiments in working time reduction were backed by powerful labor unions, and received substantial financial backing from the state, which helped to subsidize the costs of lowering weekly hours without any equivalent cut in pay (so that, in practice, workers saw a bump in their hourly wages).
The current push for a shorter workweek is the most recent phase in a long-term fight over working-time. During the 1970’s, labor and the left across much of Western Europe launched campaigns for a reduction in weekly work hours. In the crucible of economic crisis and escalating class struggle which marked that decade, left-wing trade unions adopted plans to shorten the workweek to 35-hours. By reducing the length of a full-time workweek, these unions hoped to “humanize” work, while redistributing the gains of rising productivity to workers in the form of additional time-off. They also hoped to counter the growth of unemployment, by compelling employers to make up the lost hours through new hiring.
Among the key battles that resulted were two bitter strikes for the 35-hour workweek in West Germany in 1978 and 1984, the latter of which led to a historic agreement on working time reduction in the metalworking sector.
But the culmination of all labor’s efforts happened in France, where, at the end of the 1990’s, the 35-hour week was introduced as the legal duration of work for nearly all private-sector employees. This reform, accomplished by two pieces of legislation known as the Aubry Laws (named after then Labor Minister Martine Aubry), made France a pioneer in the field of working-time reduction and a test-case for the fight over the four-day workweek.
The legislation establishing the 35-hour workweek was proposed by prime minister Lionel Jospin’s Plural Left coalition in 1997. For Jospin and his cabinet (including his Socialist Party, the Communists and the Greens), this law was intended primarily to counter joblessness. At a time when France’s economic outlook was dire, with unemployment in the double digits, the government wanted to cut weekly work-hours in order to boost job growth.
In this regard, the measure was relatively successful. As a 2014 parliamentary report on the effects of the law concluded:
Between 1997 and 2001, unemployment decreased in France in unprecedented proportions (particularly between 1999 and 2000) following the coming-into-force of the first Aubry law. The number of unemployed people dropped by 350,000 in one year. This was the Aubry law’s main objective.
The late economist Michel Husson has pointed out that the five years after the first Aubry Law saw nearly two-thirds of all net private-sector job creation in France in the three decades before the 2008 financial crisis. Moreover, these new jobs were not the low-wage, part-time variety that have become so common across the developed world. Rather, part-time jobs as a proportion of total employment fell after 1997. Along with a sharp rise in the minimum wage (included in the Aubry legislation as a monthly bonus to compensate low-wage workers whose hours had been cut), this job growth contributed to an overall fall in earnings-related inequality during the five years following the first Aubry law.
In total, researchers estimate that between 1998 and 2010, French workers’ actual weekly hours fell by an average of 2.8 hours; one study concluded that average yearly hours for full-time employees fell by 14%. That included a roughly 8% fall in the first five years alone.
While France wasn’t the only country to move toward shorter working weeks, no other country experienced such a rapid drop in full-time hours.
But if the French experience shows the possibilities for shortening the workweek, it also demonstrates the pitfalls of giving employers too much leeway to shape how working time reduction is carried out.
Next week: Part two of this piece will discuss the complications of, and challenges to, France’s 35-hour workweek.