Unions call for four-day working week to ensure workers share fruits of technological change
Most of the benefits of increased productivity, achieved through workplace technological change, has gone to a small “global elite,” rather than working people, according to a senior trade union leader.
Speaking at an international conference on the future of working time in Dublin today (Thursday), Fórsa deputy general secretary Kevin Callinan said reduced working time was again emerging as one of the central issues in international debates about the future of work.
We know that technology has the potential to take a lot of the drudgery and danger out of current workplace tasks, while increasing prosperity and creating many new jobs.
“Trade unions don’t want to impede economic progress in a 21st century Luddite escapade. We know that technology has the potential to take a lot of the drudgery and danger out of current workplace tasks, while increasing prosperity and creating many new jobs. But we are determined to secure a fairer share of the benefits of economic growth and technological advances for all workers in all sectors of the economy, including through reduced working time,” he said.
The conference also heard from Kate Bell, head of economic and social affairs at the UK Trade Union Congress (TUC), which has put the demand for a four-day week at the centre of its response to automation and productivity-driving technological change.
“Technology enables us to work cheaper and faster, and that should make us all better off. In Britain, to take just one example, the government estimates that robots and autonomous technology could boost GDP by around £200 billion a year. But if we raise our productivity, isn’t it worth asking whether we could be working four days rather than five while producing the same amount?
“That’s how workers have historically benefited from improvements in technology. The reduction in average working hours from over 60 a week in 1868 – 150 years ago – to just over 30 today is one example. The weekend, which was seen as an unaffordable luxury until around the middle of the twentieth century, is another. Several generations on, we have the chance to fight for a fairer share for everyone, including through a four day week,” she said.
The weekend, which was seen as an unaffordable luxury until around the middle of the twentieth century.
Mr Callinan added: “It’s almost 90 years ago since economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that productivity improvements would eventually lead to a 15-hour working week. His reasoning was straightforward enough. By producing more with less, our needs would be met through less work and there would be more time for leisure. Even Keynes could scarcely have conceived of the gains in productivity that have been achieved since he made his prediction, especially in recent decades. And yet the length of the working week has remained more or less the same.”
The conference, organised by Fórsa, brought together trade unionists and working time experts from Ireland, Germany and the UK. It came in response to the large number of motions about working time submitted to Fórsa’s national conference last May, when an executive motion committed the union to work with others to reduce working time in all sectors of the economy.
German manufacturing union IG Metall recently negotiated a deal that included the option for 500,000 workers in 280 companies to reduce their working time.
The conference also heard from Conny Schoenhardt of the German manufacturing union IG Metall, which recently negotiated a deal that included the option for 500,000 workers in 280 companies to reduce their working time.
Aidan Harper, director of the UK-based ‘4-Day Week Campaign’, said international studies show no positive correlation between working hours and wealth. “Countries who work fewer hours tend to have higher levels of productivity, as well as greater amounts of wealth per person. A reduction in working time is entirely feasible with current levels of technology and the benefits for society, gender equality, the economy and the environment can be significant. Time must become political once again,” he said.
Conference speakers also highlighted the gender aspects of working time, specifically for women with childcare and other caring responsibilities, as well as the need for workers to have control over their working hours in an era of zero-hours’ contracts and other new forms of work organisation.