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Imagining
Trend 22 July Jul 2020 0636 22 July 2020

A shorter working week to combat the unemployment caused by Covid-19? The debate is on.

From Great Britain to Italy, proposals are being made to reduce working hours to combat the labour crisis and redistribute work. What’s the best way forward?

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The slogan “work less and we all work” is back in vogue as a way to combat post-Covid unemployment, ‘redistributing’ what work there is.

Much discussed in Italy, the topic has become part of the ‘Decreto Rilancio’ (Relaunch Decree) thanks to a ‘new skills fund’ allowing companies to assign a specific number of working hours to train its workforce with the costs picked up by the government. That’s not all. In January this year before the Covid-19 emergency, the Democratic Party introduced a Bill (number 2327) into parliament which aims to redistribute work in four ways: less costly open-ended contracts of up to 30 hours per week, tax incentives for workers voluntarily taking part-time, more part-time contracts in public administration, and tax penalties for overtime beyond a specific threshold. When fully operational these measures are estimated to get 750,000 more people into work per year at a cost of 2.8 billion euro. Of course, with a consequent reduction in salaries.

With what is forecast to be a hot autumn around the corner and much uncertainty around employment levels, this proposal has once again come to the fore. The rationale is: instead of excluding people from the labour market, it is better to share out the working day. This would avoid peaks in overtime on the one hand and a lack of jobs on the other.

The president of Italy’s national institute for social insurance (INPS), Pasquale Tridico, is one of the main supporters of reducing working hours as a way to redistribute wealth and boost employment.

Cutting short the working week is also under discussion in Great Britain. A group of MPs has called on the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, to consider the possibility of a four-day week in response to the increasing rate of unemployment in the wake of the pandemic. In a letter sent to Sunak, the signatories (including the former shadow Chancellor John McDonnell) maintain that such a solution could share out work at this time of crisis. This is a recurring theme in British politics - McDonnell has already made the same proposal in 2019 - but now it has gained fresh momentum.

The signatories explain that a four-day week would bring multiple benefits to society, the environment, democracy, and the economy through increased productivity, and it would also improve mental health and wellbeing.

The British proposal follows on from the newly-elected Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s idea to reduce the working week to four six-hour days, which she hinted at during her electoral campaign. This is a 40% reduction compared to a working week in Italy. “I believe people deserve to spend more time with their families, loved ones, hobbies and other aspects of life, such as culture,” she had said. Since being elected, Marin has not mentioned her proposal again, except perhaps thinking over the idea as an effective response to the employment crisis caused by the pandemic.

The idea of reducing the working week is not new to public debate in the western world. With advances in technology and the widespread opportunities for smart working, the proposal is no longer off-limits. Though some companies have begun experimenting with the concept and have significantly increased productivity, studies have warned that the working day could become much more stressful.

Public opinion is divided. Those in favour wager that the concept of distributing work differently and reducing the hours of a single worker would make it possible to increase the workforce even with the same salary levels. What’s more, a decrease in quantity could lead to an increase in quality. Detractors believe that “work less and we all work” at the same salary levels could only lead to higher costs and a fall in employment.

By putting theory into practice, things could become much more complicated on the factory floor. Especially when production rates require 24-hour shift cycles. “Over 24 hours there are three eight-hour shifts, seven days a week. There is down time between one shift and the next to pass on information, then meal breaks and two other 15-minute breaks. That’s a total of one and a half hours less work,” explains Maddalena Cairoli, production plant manager at a pharmaceutical company in the Veneto region.

It has nothing to do with the difficulty of the assigned task: “Even the simplest job needs instructions,” Cairoli reminds us. So, can we envisage a new approach to the organization of time in production plants of this kind? “It’s all to do with how work is organised and complying with the required quality standards. Even if we work in four-hour shifts, we still need down time and bathroom breaks. There are pros and cons to such a regime, but only having one weekend with your family once every six weeks will become stressful.”

The debate is on. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said that “things like a four-day week now are no longer things we should just be talking about.” Is it time to put theory into practice?

A company in the Vicenza area tried to reduce capacity by 10%, which led to a need for +12.5% more working hours. In other words, one worker in eight. This could be the basis for a new approach.

This is why it is essential to allow for a negotiation phase when assigning workloads. “Since 2009, we have seen a growth in lean production approaches. Through our Observatory at the trade union headquarters in Milan, we have monitored a number of companies where technology and digitalisation have been an increasingly important lever in the standardisation of processes and time saving. This is why, with the government’s support, we need to hold talks so that we find the right model,” claims Marcello Scipioni, head of the innovation department at the CGIL trade union in Milan. “Italian workers are among the hardest working in the world, with peaks reaching 90% capacity in working hours,” Scipioni points out.

This performance in some parts of the country, above all in the north, means that Italian companies match European levels. Unfortunately, the aggregate figures do not paint such a positive picture: Italy ranks third from last in the efficiency ratings of the European Union and 90th among the 141 countries surveyed worldwide according to the Global Competitiveness Report 2019-2020 published by the World Economic Forum. “A company in the Vicenza area tried to reduce capacity by 10%, which led to a need for +12.5% more working hours. In other words, one worker in eight. This could be the basis for a new approach,” Scipioni concludes.

Is this possible in a struggling economy? “Various studies have shown that economic growth is not the result of an increase in the quantity of work, but rather of an increase in its intrinsic quality. Currently, Italy is more like Mexico than Scandinavian countries,” claims labour law expert Lorenzo Gelmi.

Culture also plays a part: “For many years, in Milan leaving work before doing eight hours was not good practice. Now millennials are changing all that by focusing more on the quality of their leisure time. If the mainstream follows the well-known saying ‘work a lot and charge even more’, then a new approach is emerging.” After being forced into smart working, the goal now is to “maximise its advantages as one of the few elements in the employer-employee relationship where there is no conflict, it’s a win-win for both sides.”

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