Germany's biggest union is fighting for a 28 hour working week – here's how the UK could follow suit

The reason we have a weekend and an eight hour day, rather than working 69 hour weeks, is because of the struggles of organised labour throughout the 19th and 20th centuries

Aidan Harper
Thursday 12 October 2017 11:21
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In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that within a century, increases in productivity would mean that we would all be working 15-hour weeks
In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that within a century, increases in productivity would mean that we would all be working 15-hour weeks

On Tuesday it was reported that Germany’s biggest union is pushing for a 28 hour working week. The union argues that workers should get a fair share in the benefits of Germany’s growing economy in the form of better pay and an improved work-life balance.

This ambitious move is entirely in line with Germany’s recent history. Along with Holland, they have some of the lowest number of hours worked per year in the world, and some of the highest levels of GDP per person.

Unions have a long and proud history of fighting for shorter working hours. The reason we have a weekend and an eight hour day, rather than working 69 hour weeks, is because of the struggles of organised labour throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Within the UK, unions are also fighting for reduced working hours. Royal Mail workers represented by the CWU recently balloted for strike action, with reduced working hours one of their central demands. The RMT also have a long-standing policy for a 32 hour four day week, and Aslef have just suspended a planned tube strike over the four day week after making headway with negotiations.

It is about time shortening the working week has come back on the agenda. In 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that within a century, increases in productivity would mean that we would all be working 15-hour weeks. His prediction proved wrong: since the 1970s, work-time has barely reduced, despite an increase in productivity by a factor of 2.5.

The 4DayWeek Campaign welcomes the revival of struggles for a shorter working week and we call for a national movement for the four day week, along the lines of the Eight Hour Day Movement in the 19th Century.

We need a shorter working week today more than ever. Indeed, we argue that the implementation of a four day week is a fundamental solution to a number of crises underway in Britain today.

We are currently in a crisis of overwork: in 2015/16 stress accounted for 37 per cent of all work related ill health cases and 45 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health. Work-related stress is often a major cause of family breakdown, drug and alcohol addiction, and heightens a series of other mental health issues. It also acts as an economic drag on the UK economy, costing us some £6.5bn a year in lost workdays and additional pressure on public services.

At the same time we are experiencing a crisis of underemployment - whereby people are in work but do not get the hours they need for a decent standard of living. The gap between those who report themselves as overworked, and those who report themselves as underworked is growing and at its widest point since before 2008. In a situation in which there are people with too much work living alongside those with too little, we argue that the logical solution is to redistribute what good work is available.

We are also faced with looming crisis around the future of work. It is estimated that by 2020, over 30 per cent of jobs in the UK will become automated. As more jobs are done by machines, we are likely to face the prospect of widespread unemployment and low wages. We argue that a shorter working week will help share what work is still available and distribute evenly the benefits of automation.

A four day week is essential to a future with a healthy society and a well-functioning economy. Inspired by our Europeans neighbours, and our own proud history, it’s time to revive the movement for a shorter working week.

Aidan Harper is a member of the 4DayWeek Campaign, and a researcher in work and social policy for the New Economics Foundation. Check out the 4DayWeek Campaign at: www.4DayWeek.co.uk or on Twitter @4Day_Week

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