Four-day week: sagas of Icelanders

There being an R in the month, there is a new report making the case for a four-day week.

This month, the focus is on Wales, with a report by think tank Autonomy, commissioned by the Future Generations for Wales Commissioner, concluding that a shorter working week (with no reduction in pay) could “contribute to the goal of a resilient Wales, and also a globally responsible Wales”. And, according to this breathless Autonomy report, no fewer than 57% of the Welsh public support a (hypothetical) Welsh Government-backed scheme to move towards a shorter working week (with no reduction in pay). Which rather begs the question: are the other 43% all masochistic idiots, or what?

Unfortunately, as the report itself quietly acknowledges, implementation of a four-day week for all Welsh workers falls “outside the current legislative capacities of the Welsh Government”. But no worries, because we already know from trials in Iceland, Germany and – *checks notes* – an unidentified charity that the four-day week (with no reduction in pay) is the best policy idea … EVER!

Indeed, according to a BBC news headline in July 2021, the introduction of a four-day week in Iceland has been an “overwhelming success”, with 86% of working Icelanders now entitled to “shorter hours for the same pay”. These lucky Icelanders report “feeling less stressed” and “having more time to spend with their families, do hobbies and complete household chores”, the BBC informs us. And sustainable democracy campaigner Gudmundur Haraldsson is on hand to tell the BBC:

“The Icelandic shorter working week journey tells us that not only is it possible to work less in modern times, but that progressive change is possible too.”

[And today, just hours after I published this post, the Guardian reports that “the four-day working week was trialled in Iceland between 2015 and 2019, and it has since become the choice of 85% of the country’s working population”. And the Telegraph similarly reports that “the four-day working week was tested in Iceland between 2015 and 2019, with 85% of its population continuing to do so”.]*

Yay! A four-day week, for five days’ pay! You can sign this enormously progressive wonk up for that. Well, maybe not the ‘completing household chores’ bit. But more time for my hobbies? Bring it ON.

However, if this all sounds just a wee bit too good to be true, that’s because it is too good to be true. For Iceland has not introduced a four-day week (with no reduction in pay).

Sure, between 2015 and 2019, Reykjavík city council and the Icelandic national government ran two trials of a shorter [sic] working week, with no reduction in pay. These involved a total of some 2,500 workers reducing their working week from 40 to 35 or 36 hours (so, not necessarily to a ‘four-day working week’). And official analysis of the trials concluded that “productivity and service provision remained the same or improved across the majority of trial workplaces”, while “worker well-being dramatically increased across a range of indicators, from perceived stress and burnout, to health and work-life balance”. 

However, these (arguably unsurprising) findings did not lead to the Icelandic government introducing a four-day week (with no reduction in pay) for Iceland’s workforce of some 200,000, which historically has tended to work relatively long hours, by international standards. Rather, in 2019 and 2020 contracts guaranteeing shorter working hours were agreed between trade unions and Iceland’s private sector employers, local councils and central government. And, according to the July 2021 report by think tank Autonomy on which the BBC news report was based, by June 2021 these new contracts covered some 170,000 trade union members (that is, 86% of the workforce).

More to the point, according to the Autonomy report, these new contracts delivered cuts to the previous working week of just 65 minutes in the public sector, and a mere 35 minutes in the private sector. Whoopee woo.

OK, maybe these small but welcome contractual adjustments will lead to greater change in the longer run. Seven months on from the July 2021 Autonomy report and BBC headline, it is still too early to know. All that this month’s Autonomy report on a more resilient Wales is able to tell us about what has transpired in Iceland is that the new collective agreements “leave open the possibility of reduced hours being implemented more widely across the [Icelandic] economy”. Ble mae’r parti?

Yes, the latest data from Eurostat (the statistical office of the EU Commission) indicates that the average weekly hours of full-time workers in Iceland fell from 44 hours in 2019, to … wait for it … 43.5 hours in 2020 (when there was a global Covid19 lockdown). But clearly we’ll need to see data for 2021 and 2022 before we start popping that siampên.

Whatever, the key point is that, while the Icelandic trials provide very helpful evidence of the (undeniable) benefits of a better work-life balance, and of the impact on productivity of a shorter working week, Iceland is not an example of the introduction of a four-day working week, as proposed for the UK by think tanks such as Autonomy and the Fabians.

None of which is to say that we should not be trying to work towards a shorter working week. As noted above, my hobbies (and even my family) stand waiting. But I’m also still waiting for advocates of the four-day week to explain exactly how it could be delivered across the UK economy without suppressing the income of the millions of hourly-paid workers on zero-hours contracts or other forms of precarious employment, most of whom simply cannot afford a 20% pay cut. On this, pretty much all that the latest Autonomy report has to say is that “there is potential to synergise the policy [of a four-day week] with [Universal] Basic Income”, because “the economic security provided by a guaranteed income can give precarious workers more power to decide their working routines”.

To which I say dim ond breuddwyd yw hynny i chi.

*Today’s report in the Guardian about a planned new law in Belgium – also in the Independent – failed to make the rather important distinction between a right to request compressed hours, and a four-day week as commonly understood (and as advocated by campaigners for, well, a four-day week). As the Telegraph managed to concede: “the Belgian model falls short of an actual shortened working week”. I am 86% sure this will lead to me writing another blog post pretty soon.

About wonkypolicywonk

Wonkypolicywonk is a policy minion, assigned wonky at birth, who has been lucky enough to work for two of the very best MPs in the House of Commons, and for Maternity Action, Working Families, Citizens Advice, the National Audit Office, the Law Society, and Amnesty International UK.
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1 Response to Four-day week: sagas of Icelanders

  1. Pingback: Basic Income: What’s occurring? | Labour Pains

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