IN February of 2000 the French socialist government introduced the 35-hour working week. As in South Africa, the previous legal duration of the working week had been some 39 to 40 hours, which had was established under François Mitterrand. The main objectives of the law decreasing the work week were twofold:
- To reduce unemployment and yield a better division of labor, in a context where some people work long hours while some others are unemployed. A 10.2% decrease in the hours extracted from each worker would, theoretically, require firms to hire correspondingly more workers, a remedy for unemployment
- To take advantage of improvements in productivity of modern society to give workers some more personal time to enhance quality of life.
South Africa’s working week has on the whole, increased, and the guidelines contained in the Labour Relations Act are very rarely imposed upon employers, who are able to argue “exigency of the situation” — for example the Labour Court of South Africa has condoned a 7 day work week and 14 hour shifts whenever required for media workers at the same time there are moves abroad to lower the work week duration to 21 hours.
A 2009 report by the influential thinktank, the New Economic Foundation, says over-consumption, rising unemployment, increasing inequality and deteriorating work-life balance can be tackled by radically altering working life.
Reducing the working week could also defuse the pensions time bomb by ensuring employees are healthy enough to work later in life.
Citing the example of Utah, the study shows how the US state’s decision in 2008 to place all public-sector workers on a four-day week saved energy, reduced absenteeism and increased productivity.
It would create jobs and stop the unsustainable cycle of rampant consumerism. Sure, it would also require a wholesale reordering of our economy, but that might happen whether we like it or not.
“The proposed shift towards 21 hours must be seen in terms of a broad, incremental transition to social, economic, and environmental sustainability,” says the NEF
In the year 1930, John Maynard Keynes predicted that, by century’s end, technology would have advanced sufficiently that countries like Great Britain or the United States would have achieved a 15-hour work week