Is a four-day working week unrealistic – or a bargain?

Labour’s four-day week – or 32-hour week as John McDonnell would prefer it to be described – became party policy at the Labour conference in September. Since then, there has been a lot of criticism of the proposal in the media, and much speculation over its cost. But supporters of the idea argue that it is actually a “bargain”.

Labour has committed to moving towards a 32-hour working week over a period of ten years, crucially, with no loss of pay. Lots of people seem to like the idea – 64% of UK business people support its introduction, according to a YouGov poll – but the policy has received pretty short shrift from many commentators during the general election campaign.

The Conservatives and the Centre for Policy Studies have claimed that the cost of  transitioning the public sector towards a four-day week would amount to £17bn. Boris Johnson described the short week idea as a “crackpot plan”. When the 32-hour week came up in the live TV debate on Tuesday, audience members heckled Jeremy Corbyn – who responded that people should know it’s “probably good for their health and wellbeing”.

Is introducing a 32-hour week for public sector workers well-intentioned but unrealistically expensive, as the Tories argue? A new report released today by think tank Autonomy suggests that isn’t the case.

Using basic assumptions, such as increased tax revenue from new staff and employer national insurance contributions, the think tank report calculates the cost of the policy to be at most £3.55bn. To put it in perspective, that is less than 1% of the overall public spending budget.

Autonomy’s analysis also outlines that the process of moving to a 32-hour working week in the public sector would create over 500,000 new jobs. While the policy would require state expenditure, it’s a relatively small amount and reaps considerable social and economic benefits.

The think tank says the policy would move over three million full-time staff to a four-day working week, and Labour has been keen to emphasise the health benefits for these workers. The latest data from the Labour Force Survey show that the total number of cases of work-related stress, depression or anxiety in 2018/19 was 602,000 – of this, 44% were reportedly caused by workload.

Autonomy also points out that, because of the relatively low price tag on the policy, it could be implemented within a single parliamentary term. Labour has allowed for an entire decade – i.e. two terms – to bring the average working week to 32 hours.

Will Strong, the director of Autonomy, said: “These new calculations show how cheap it would really be to run a 32-hour working week in the public sector, even factoring in the creation of 500,000 new, decent jobs. The figures proposed by the Conservative Party are wild overestimations that even basic research would have shown to have been mistaken.

“At around £3.5bn, the cost of a 32-hour week is in fact a bargain, considering the huge impact it would have on millions of lives. A shorter working week is about worker health and wellbeing. It is also about greater in-work performance and perhaps most importantly it is a green policy as it reduces carbon-intensive activities such as commuting.”

Last year, the general secretary of the TUC committed the labour movement to campaigning for a four-day week. Kate Bell, head of economics at the TUC, commented on the Autonomy report: “When unions fought for the weekend, we were told it wasn’t affordable. But we know we can win shorter working time – and higher pay – by ensuring workers get a fairer share of the wealth they create. This report helps show us how.”

The New Economics Foundation also backs the four-day week campaign, and has cited benefits including future-proofing the economy for automation, creating a more environmentally-friendly economy, improving gender equality, the quality of employment and wellbeing.

Alice Martin, head of work and pay at NEF, said: “A shorter working week is not only a positive move for our overstretched workforce, but it also makes economic sense as this report shows. This is exactly the wrong time to be shying away from radical solutions to the deep, structural problems in the economy that have seen us in a productivity and wage slump for a decade.”

Polling has shown support for the policy, with nearly three quarters – 74% – of workers saying that they could complete an entire week’s work to the same standard in four days. 64% of businesses support the policy, and large businesses with more than 500 employees were most receptive to the idea with 73% in favour. YouGov also found that 71% of people think the proposal would make the nation happier.

The workforce in UK is 2.4 times more productive than it was in 1971, yet hours for full-time work have barely decreased. Average working hours in the country fell from the 1860s, but this decline stalled in the 1980s. At the same time, income inequality has increased, with the top 1% of households collecting around 8% of pay, compared to 3% in the 1970s.

Read the full report from Autonomy here.

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