This Crisis Makes Clear: We Need a Four-Day Work Week, Now

The pan­dem­ic inspired politi­cians and coun­try lead­ers across the world to speak in favor of a reduced work week. New Zealand Prime Min­is­ter Jacin­da Ardern has brought it up, as has San­na Marin, the Prime Min­is­ter of Fin­land. Germany’s largest trade union, a met­al­work­ers’ union, is push­ing the idea hard, with sup­port from the country’s Fed­er­al Min­istry of Labor and Social Affairs. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is con­sid­er­ing a wage sub­sidy pro­gram to short­en work­ers’ hours.

Accord­ing to a study by the Cana­di­an Labor Eco­nom­ics Forum, low-income work­ers in Cana­da expe­ri­enced both the sharpest decrease in work­ing hours and the sharpest increase. That’s because the Cana­di­an Emer­gency Response Ben­e­fit (CERB), a month­ly stipend of 2,000 Cana­di­an dol­lars, was avail­able to any­one who lost work due to the pan­dem­ic, and whose month­ly earn­ings were now 1,000 Cana­di­an dol­lars or less. But it didn’t apply to any­one who vol­un­tar­i­ly left their job.

Among those who kept their jobs were essen­tial work­ers, most of whom are paid para­dox­i­cal­ly low wages—they saw their jobs become more demand­ing and more dan­ger­ous. For non-essen­tial work­ers whose work shift­ed online, where their work­ing hours did increase, this may have been mit­i­gat­ed by the decrease in com­mute time. Every­one in between—peo­ple whose pan­dem­ic-relat­ed job loss brought them under the $1,000 thresh­old—sud­den­ly had more income and more time. Some actu­al­ly saw an increase in income, as the CERB amounts to more than a month­ly wage at the fed­er­al min­i­mum wage. Leah Gazan, a Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment in the province of Man­i­to­ba, has put forth a motion to con­vert the CERB into a uni­ver­sal basic income with­out cut­ting oth­er social sup­port networks. 

Politi­cians aren’t alone in think­ing about the ben­e­fits of short­er hours. Among the loud­est pro­po­nents for cut­ting hours is a New Zealand hedge fund that tri­aled a four-day week and saw an increase in pro­duc­tiv­i­ty. Oth­er firms have seen sim­i­lar results, espe­cial­ly in office set­tings. Employ­ees work­ing exces­sive hours are tired, stressed and more vul­ner­a­ble to men­tal ill­ness or dis­eases. Work­ing exces­sive hours also means we strug­gle to meet our own needs—like social­iz­ing, exer­cis­ing, eat­ing prop­er­ly or even hav­ing hob­bies. As a result, work­ers com­mod­i­fy things they would oth­er­wise do for fun, like car­ing for chil­dren or cook­ing din­ner. They hire migrant work­ers for pal­try wages or buy ready-made din­ners assem­bled by under­paid fac­to­ry workers.

A rad­i­cal short­er work week goes fur­ther than ask­ing whether we can cut hours with­out cut­ting prof­its. It chal­lenges the cen­tral role of work in our lives and asks what life could look like if the ben­e­fits of indus­tri­al­iza­tion were redis­trib­uted rather than accu­mu­lat­ed at the top. 

When the pan­dem­ic hit, Erin Socall lost her job as a pri­vate chef in Toron­to. She gave her­self a day off, and then start­ed bak­ing full-time. She made bread for peo­ple whose liveli­hoods were affect­ed by the cri­sis, deliv­er­ing up to 20 loaves across the city sev­er­al times a week. This helped sup­port a heav­i­ly over­bur­dened food secu­ri­ty sys­tem, and also helped her escape the unat­tain­able stan­dards set by her indus­try that wore on her phys­i­cal and men­tal health. Astrid Mohr, a stu­dent at McGill Uni­ver­si­ty, also start­ed bak­ing: She learned how to make crois­sants, and start­ed sell­ing them to give the pro­ceeds to food banks in the city. Both Mohr and Socall found them­selves with time on their hands as the pan­dem­ic began. It’s that leisure time that allowed them to recon­sid­er the pur­pose of their work, and build work­ing habits that are health­i­er and more sus­tain­able for them.

Cook­ing at home is one exam­ple of what Auton­o­my, a U.K.-based think tank that stud­ies work, calls “low-car­bon soft” alter­na­tives to con­sumerist behav­ior. Its 2019 report on the short­er work week found that reduc­ing work­ing hours would reduce car­bon emis­sions and improve gen­er­al soci­etal wel­fare. It would reduce com­mute traf­fic and part­ly replace it with walk­ing or bik­ing—more low-car­bon soft activ­i­ties. Auton­o­my also lays out a tran­si­tion­al path that pro­pos­es a frame­work for com­pa­nies to ensure that increased prof­it leads to bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions for employ­ees. An exam­ple is the cre­ation of a gov­ern­ment orga­ni­za­tion that would ensure that tech­no­log­i­cal inno­va­tion, like the cre­ation of new machin­ery that makes pro­duc­tion faster and eas­i­er, trans­lates to bet­ter work­ing con­di­tions instead of mass lay­offs and increased profit.

Could we replace the whole food sup­ply chain with home-baked bread? Unlike­ly. But we could reduce depen­den­cy on labor-inten­sive, high-ener­gy prod­ucts like microwave lasagna. Giv­en that Amer­i­cans waste up to 40% of food, we could fur­ther reduce indus­tri­al food pro­duc­tion. Our cities could pro­mote local food pro­duc­tion like com­mu­ni­ty-sup­port­ed agri­cul­ture and urban farm­ing.

We could imag­ine a food pro­duc­tion sys­tem that relies much less on indus­tri­al­ized agri­cul­ture. Fac­to­ry farms, whose work­ing con­di­tions and envi­ron­men­tal impact have been under increased scruti­ny dur­ing the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic, could be replaced with small­er alter­na­tives that are more friend­ly to work­ers and the envi­ron­ment. Food fac­to­ry work­ers who also ben­e­fit from the short­er work week could work less and in bet­ter con­di­tions to sup­ple­ment the local sup­ply chain as need­ed. That food sys­tem would also bet­ter resist crises like Covid-19, and improve food secu­ri­ty for peo­ple who, under the cur­rent econ­o­my, can’t always access food.

Food pro­duc­tion is the most tan­gi­ble exam­ple of the ben­e­fit of a short­er work week, but there are count­less oth­ers. By giv­ing peo­ple more time to care for them­selves and each oth­er, a short­er work week pol­i­cy would increase over­all health in soci­ety, and par­tial­ly reduce the bur­den of health­care work­ers. We’d need few­er desk work­out gad­gets, less cof­fee, and few­er med­ica­tions to treat sleep depri­va­tion. Once we start point­ing out indus­tries that prof­it off of the col­lec­tive exhaus­tion caused by over­work, it’s hard to stop.

But if our tran­si­tion to a short­er work week con­tin­ues to evolve with­out a social frame­work behind it, it will con­tin­ue to repro­duce the same inequal­i­ties we have seen dur­ing this cri­sis. Mohr, a stu­dent with a finan­cial­ly sta­ble fam­i­ly that housed and fed her dur­ing the cri­sis, was able to take this time to inten­sive­ly learn a new skill. Oth­ers with the same inter­ests, more needs, and per­haps more knowl­edge didn’t have that opportunity.

Cheyenne Sun­dance, who runs a social-jus­tice ori­ent­ed urban farm in Toron­to named “Sun­dance Har­vest,” spoke to this issue. “Some­one who has the priv­i­lege of being able to go to their par­ents’ land … can start a farm much, much soon­er than some­one who lives in a high-rise apart­ment,” she notes. Some­one with less income is more like­ly to live in a small apart­ment with­out access to land or space to grow food, and might have to wait years to access a plot.

The ben­e­fits of a short­er work week won’t reach those who need it the most: peo­ple with low­er incomes, who are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly Black, Indige­nous and peo­ple of col­or, unless it’s accom­pa­nied by social poli­cies that very inten­tion­al­ly include them. For instance, it’s impor­tant to con­sid­er poli­cies that would return land to Indige­nous peo­ple and sup­port tra­di­tion­al agriculture.

In order for a short­er work week to cre­ate struc­tur­al change, we have to under­stand it as nei­ther a panacea nor a reform, but rather a re-imag­in­ing of the pur­pose of work and leisure, and a re-envi­sion­ing of the role that pro­duc­tiv­i­ty plays in our lives.

This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Anna Roach is a fel­low at the Toni Sta­bile Cen­ter for Inves­tiga­tive Jour­nal­ism at the Colum­bia School of Jour­nal­ism. She writes about top­ics includ­ing social move­ments, gen­der and labor. 

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.