Spain is set to ask hundreds of companies to join one of the biggest tests ever to see if a four-day work week can be implemented without hurting the economy.
While initiatives elsewhere have been largely small-scale and started by individual companies, Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez’s administration has agreed to put € 50 million ($ 59 million) in public money into a program. three-year national.
It was the idea of a small left-wing political party called Mas Pais, which persuaded the Socialist-led government to implement a 32-hour work week and then evaluate the experience. Party leader Inigo Errejon expects around 200 employers to register voluntarily, with a start date in the fall.
“One hundred years have passed since the last reduction of the working day, that is to say when we obtained the right to eight hours,” he said in an interview in Madrid. “Over the past 100 years, we have continued to produce more with fewer hours of work, yet this ability to produce more through technology has not created more free time for people.”
Errejon, 37, was calling for a four-day work week even before the Covid-19 pandemic, but he says it’s now more plausible in Spain as the crisis has shown that more flexibility is possible on the workplace.
Still, he admits he has an uphill battle to make this more than just an experience. Sanchez agreed to the pilot project in January on condition that Mas Pais vote in favor of the administration’s spending plan as part of the European Union stimulus fund. Since then, ministers and other senior officials have said that a four-day work week is not a political priority.
“What matters is not the number of days worked, but rather the work-life balance,” said Joaquin Perez Rey, Secretary of State at the Spanish Ministry of Labor. “This will not be resolved with one day less.”
The idea of a four-day work week is gaining ground in parts of the world. Unilever Plc is conducting a trial in New Zealand, and Japanese lawmakers are discussing a proposal to grant an extra day off. German tech company Awin began cutting hours while maintaining wages and benefits last spring, and says sales, employee engagement and customer satisfaction have all increased.
Scaling up at the national level is more difficult, however. In France, there is still a heated debate on the impact of a decision, two decades ago, to reduce working time to 35 hours. Business groups continue to campaign for a reversal of the measure they claim has eroded competitiveness and productivity, while unions cling to it as a bastion of workers’ rights and insist that ‘it created jobs.
Successive governments have sought common ground by adjusting the labor rules without actually changing the basic requirement. In practice, there are loopholes and many people work more than 35 hours, especially with a shift towards services and freelance jobs less organized around top-down rules.
Spain’s challenge is that it has long been plagued by high unemployment, low productivity and one of the highest proportions in Europe of workers on precarious temporary contracts. The Bank of Spain has called the labor market “dysfunctional”.
Under the Errejon program, employees will receive the same wages even if they devote fewer hours to it. Unless they dramatically increase their productivity, companies will pay their workers more to do less.
Government funding compensates businesses by covering the cost of hiring additional workers or installing new technology – but only temporarily to ease the transition.
The risk is that Spanish companies, which are already not very competitive in Europe, will become even more so. Maria Jesus Fernandez Sanchez, an economist at Spain’s Funcas think tank, notes that nothing is preventing companies from now implementing a four-day work week.
“If they wouldn’t do it without these funds, it probably means it’s not doable,” she said. “If it was Switzerland or Japan, it could work perfectly. But not in Spain.
The government says it is working to ensure that workers laid off during the pandemic return to stable jobs to avoid a further spike in unemployment. In the medium term, he wants to reduce the share of short-term contracts.
Errejon says this trial will at least provide researchers with valuable information. But he’s also optimistic that it can lay the groundwork for a four-day week in industries where the pilot shows businesses and workers benefit.
“Thanks to the pilot program, we started a debate in Spain,” Errejon said. “Before, it was something reserved for a few innovative companies who had decided to implement it themselves, but it was not a national debate. It’s now.”