On Monday the left-leaning French daily newspaper Libération devoted its front page to the idea of a 32-hour week, a topic that has been revived by the pandemic and ensuing economic slowdown, as unions, politicians and business leaders discuss the best way out of the crisis, and the long-term future for the workplace.
À la une de Libération ce lundi :
🗓 Semaine de quatre jours : et le cinquième jour il se reposa
— Libération (@libe) August 22, 2021
The newspaper’s editorial says: “Until now, the idea of a four-day week has floated around without being taken very seriously. But the pandemic, by rethinking the way we work, could well give it new life.
“Its advocates argue above all that a generalised switch to a four-day, 32-hour week would create 1.5 to 2 million jobs, i.e. many more than the number of additional jobs generated by the 35-hour week. So, why not study this possibility seriously?”
The idea of a 32-hour work week is not new in France, it has been part of discussions and in the manifestos of some political parties since the 1990s, but the seismic shifts caused by the pandemic have prompted new discussions on how to work, and not just in France.
“For us, it’s an opportunity to think about the organisation of work differently,” explains Sandrine Mourey, confederal secretary of the CGT union, which supports the idea.
The Green party and the hard-left La France Insoumise have both previously supported the idea.
35-hour work week
The French 35-hour week is well known, but rather more complex in reality than it sounds.
Adopted in 2000 as a measure to reduce unemployment, the 35-hour week is a legal requirement for businesses, but with so many exemptions that very few full-time employees in reality work just 35 hours on a weekly basis.
The average working week in France is 39 hours – the equivalent of a 9-5 day for five days. Of the workers who are covered by the 35-hour week, most work 39 hours and then take the extra hours in time in lieu, or réductions de temps du travail known as RTT days, which can be added on to annual holiday entitlement.
Most public sector workers are entitled to RTT days, which add up to a couple of extra weeks of holiday per year, but there are many groups who are exempt from the rule, especially in the private sector.
Some industries, including journalism, have deals where employees have opted out of the 35-hour week (usually in exchange for extra perks such as tax breaks) while anyone working at line manager or above level is also not covered by the rule.
Four days or shorter hours?
So how would a 32-hour week work? It’s often referred to as a four-day week, since 32 hours covers four standard working days, with the fifth day off. However supporters of the measure say it doesn’t necessarily have to work that like and people could instead work five shorter days – a measure that would particularly suit parents who need to be around for school drop-off and pick-up times.
“We can’t say that the 32 hours must absolutely be spread over four days,” says the CGT’s Mourey, “that doesn’t correspond to the diversity of working hours, depending on whether you are a manager or a line worker.”
The rise of remote working during the pandemic has also seen more flexibility around working hours, with workers able to alter their working hours to suit their lifestyle, provided they get all their work done.
The emergency chômage partiel (furlough) scheme introduced during the pandemic saw some companies reduce the hours of their employees in order to cope with reduced business activity, while maintaining most of their usual pay packet (between 80 and 100 percent depending on the employer) thanks to government help.
Some businesses have already tried it. Back in the 1990s, when discussions around a shorter working week were ongoing, around 400 businesses experimented with it.
Monique Ranou, a charcuterie producer based in Quimper in Brittany, was one of those who took part in a trial. On May 1st 1997, its 180 employees went to 32 hours, with four-day shifts. Twenty-four years later, there are nearly 600 of them in the company, but only 40 percent are still working 32 hours. All new employees have 35-hour contracts, as has been standard from 2002.
But it’s not just France which is contemplating this idea, several other countries including Spain, Norway and New Zealand have already done experiments with a four-day week.
The most wide-ranging trial so far was conducted in Iceland, where around one percent of the country’s workforce moved to a four-day week between 2015 and 2019.
The employees – including local and national government staff, preschools, offices, social service providers and hospitals – kept the same salary but dropped from five days a week to four. Productivity in the majority of workplaces either remained the same or improved, and since the trial ended unions have lead moves to renegotiate contracts, which around 80 percent of employees have taken up.
What about productivity?
So would anyone get any work done in France? French workers have a bit of a reputation for being either at lunch or on strike.
US industry boss Maurice Taylor in 2013 wrote to France’s industrial renewal minister calling French workers lazy and overpaid – although he was maybe just sore because years of negotiations by his company Titan to take over a French plant had failed.
“They get one hour for breaks and lunch, talk for three and work for three. I told this to the French union workers to their faces. They told me that’s the French way!” wrote Taylor.
Despite these lazy stereotypes, French workers generally do pretty well in international productivity comparisons. They may get plenty of time off, but when they are at work, they work hard.
This seems to be supported by the four-day week trials elsewhere, which show that simply spending a lot of time at work is not the same as getting lots done.
So when do I start?
It’s unlikely that this will be introduced any time soon. Although the idea has some support, none of the larger political parties have made it a part of their policies and most business leaders are opposed. The hardline CGT union supports it, but the larger and more politically mainstream unions have so far not made a commitment on it.
Current president Emmanuel Macron seems unlikely to be in favour, he has previously spoken about the idea of scrapping the 35-hour week as a way of boosting the French economy and is looking at extending working life through changing the retirement age.
The MP Roland Lescure, chairman of the French parliament’s economic affairs committee, told Libération: “It’s a bad idea. At a time when we have an unemployment rate of 9 percent and, at the same time, recruitment difficulties, the 32-hour week would increase these labour problems and could have a recessionary and inflationary impact.”
“It is not by working less that we will get out of this crisis but by training more and working better”.