Finland’s new prime minister backs four-day working week

Sanna Marin is a supporter of reducing the working day, though it is not government policy

Jon Stone
Europe Correspondent
Monday 06 January 2020 16:25 GMT
Finland’s new prime minister backs four-day working week

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Finland’s new prime minister is a supporter of cutting the working week to four-day days, and has argued that the change would let people spend more time with their families.

Sanna Marin, a social democrat, who took office in December, leads a broad coalition that also includes greens, leftists and centrists.

“I believe people deserve to spend more time with their families, loved ones, hobbies and other aspects of life, such as culture,” she had previously said at her party's conference in the autumn of 2019.

“This could be the next step for us in working life.”

While the idea is not government policy under her coalition administration, her recent support for the radical move raises the prospect that Finland could eventually become the latest country to experiment with cutting working hours.

Ms Marin, who is the world’s youngest serving national leader, also suggested that as an alternative the standard working day could be reduced to six hours, down from the current eight.

The working week in Europe was progressively shortened around the turn of the 20th century, largely under pressure from the labour movement – with the gradual introduction of the modern two-day weekend and the eight-hour day.

But change has been slower in recent decades, with the five-day week and eight-hour day becoming the standard benchmark across the developed world.

An attempt by former French prime minister Lionel Jospin to bring in a 35-hour workweek at the beginning of the 21st century produced only limited success, with many loopholes and low uptake.

Ahead of last year’s general election, the UK’s Labour Party said it wanted to work towards a four-day week as a long-term aim within a decade, though the party remains in opposition.

Critics say reducing the working week while paying people the same amount would impose a cost on business, but proponents say the difference would be made up because of increased productivity.

Some local councils in Finland’s neighbour Sweden have been experimenting with six-hour days in recent years, with early results suggesting the move increased productivity.

The political backdrop to the Finnish prime minister’s call is months of industrial unrest, which brought down the previous government. The strikes were brought to an end by a pay deal between unions and employers, which saw improvements in pay rises and working conditions.

Finland has one of the highest levels of trade union coverage in Europe, with 91 per cent of employees covered by collective agreements guaranteeing working time, pay and conditions.

This figure compares with an EU average of 60 per cent. The corresponding coverage for the UK is 29 per cent of workers, one of the lowest in the bloc – while the highest are found in France, Belgium and Austria, where collective bargaining coverage is near-universal.

This article has been updated to clarify that Sanna Marin's comments were made in 2019 before she became prime minister.

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