There are many things to be grateful for when we look at how far human societies have progressed. Over 130 years ago, Pope Leo XIII asked employers to shorten working hours because they were too long, especially for those involved in hard labour (Rerum novarum, 42). Today, nonprofit groups and researchers are experimenting with the four-day work week in the UK, and other places. In fact, a Straits Times editor published an opinion piece on how Singapore should go further and try for a three-day work week instead. How times have changed!
The central questions in the public discourse on a shorter work week are concerned with productivity and quality of life. The key idea is that less work days are probably good for the physical and mental health for the worker and employers also benefit because productivity will increase. Few people will dispute that shorter working days are probably better for the worker. The world is becoming more complex. Digital technologies are making communications more convenient, but also very rapid and transactional. Families are struggling to balance between family life and work life. The pandemic has made it hard for many to draw boundaries between times for work and for rest. Thus, the remaining question that will be decisive on whether to implement a shorter work week is the productivity issue.
Proponents of a shorter work week argue that employers should support this move because they would benefit from higher productivity. Let’s face it. How many of us actually really work continuously through every minute of our working hours? There are times when we are just chatting with colleagues or surfing the internet or checking our social media feeds. These are natural behaviours because it is difficult to focus all the time, and we cherish social interactions as social beings. The idea then is that if workers have a shorter working period, they can actually accomplish the same amount of work in less time because they have more incentives to be more focused at work. This could result in significant cost reduction. For example, not using electricity in the office for one extra day a week can add up to quite a lot.
However, it seems to me that conversations on productivity increase as a result of a shorter work week tend to be dominated by workers who live in an urban setting and work in the office. It is much harder to talk about productivity increase for manual labour workers. What happens when cleaners, waiters, and retail workers work shorter hours? Can their productivity increase? I cannot see how a shop can sell the same amount of things if they are open for only three days a week. And how about the factory? Many factories today run non-stop. While they are often highly automated, human workers are needed to stand by should an incident occurs. And it is certainly impossible for Grab drivers to give the same number of customers a ride in shorter time. So even if office workers do end up being more productive in a shorter work week, are we going to implement a shorter work week for non-office workers too? Will employers support the move to shorten work hours without cutting pay if the only justification is better well-being for the worker?
Fortunately, the UK study appears to take seriously the sectors where most workers are not performing white-collar jobs. We have to wait for the results of the experiment. Meanwhile, for those of us who work in the office, we need to empathise more with those of us who do not. This is even more so because non-office jobs often pay less and take place in settings where working conditions are poorer. We therefore need to be cognizant that productivity talk is less applicable to non-office jobs and cannot be the main basis for a move to cut the work week shorter.
The last thing we want is a shorter work week for office workers and the same long work week for non-office workers. This is already happening in retail and F&B sectors. Malaysia’s eateries are offering free iPhones to waiters because they could not hire enough workers as the pandemic subsides. If these workers could afford not to, why would they return to the workplace that made them work long hours before the pandemic and then retrenched them during the pandemic? Inequality is already rife as it is. We would not want to exacerbate it with a larger gap in working hours.
Inspired by the gospel, the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council called for the removal of immense and growing inequalities more than half a century ago (Gaudium et spes, 66). That call remains relevant today. As Church, we must always and continually consider how we can answer that call. In the context of the conversation around a shorter work week, we can begin to answer that call by shifting the focus of the discourse from productivity to the dignity and wellbeing of the human worker.
Erwin Susanto is a staff member of Caritas Singapore. He enjoys boring his friends with his interest in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible studies and finds it hard to resist commentating on all kinds of contemporary issues. He tries his best not to sound cheem.