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The four-day week: cure or symptom?

Reading Time: 4 minutes

In vogue since the early 1990s and tested by several countries and some companies since then, the four-day working week has been actively discussed since the beginning of the “Covid era”. In March 2020, the Hungarian Euro-enthusiast party Momentum even included it in its programme,[1] while Párbeszéd, the party of Budapest mayor Gergely Karácsony, has been advocating a reduction in working hours during campaigning for the opposition primary for the parliamentary elections in April 2022.

The idea of reducing working hours is back in fashion

The four-day week (4DW) makes us think of Iceland, New Zealand, and Microsoft in Japan, but it is undoubtedly in France that this measure – and more broadly the issue of reducing working time – has been most thoroughly discussed, particularly through the work and activism of Pierre Larrouturou, an economist and politician who has been in favour of the 4DW since 1993.

It was he who conceived the De Robien law of 1996, which allowed companies, on a voluntary basis, to reduce the weekly working hours of their employees in exchange for advantages in terms of social contributions. However, Larrouturou was opposed to the Aubry laws, which repealed the De Robien law and established the 35-hour week, because of their lack of flexibility and their “one size fits all” approach.

He was right when he predicted that the verticality of this reform would kill the debate on the question of working time, and even make it a bogeyman, while the 35-hour working week has deeply divided French society for many years.

But then came the Covid pandemic, which is also an opportunity for profound changes in relation to working time, or at least an occasion to “reflect, reimagine and reinitialize our world”[2].

The 4DW has indeed been given a new lease of life in recent months, as its promoters see it as one of the keys to avoiding the “climate catastrophe” and as the only way to fight mass unemployment, which, due to the “health catastrophe”, is likely to reach new heights. It is really necessary to appreciate how far the terms health and climate have become synonymous in recent times. This is a phenomenon best illustrated by Pierre Larrouturou’s parallel between the melting permafrost and future health risks[3].

In Hungary, where unemployment has not been a problem for a decade, only a few opposition movements have gone so far as to put the issue of shorter working hours on the table, presenting it as the only guarantee of well-being at work that respects the environment.

No doubt these movements also have in mind that the economic and social transformation triggered in March 2020 will bring about a resurgence of mass unemployment in Central Europe, similar to what several Western and Southern European countries have been experiencing for several decades.

“Health restrictions” have established the principle of the primacy of “public health” over economic growth. The 4DW advocates are in exactly this niche: They believe that growth is an outdated concept and that it is harmful to public health. They observe that mass unemployment kills, but don’t the proportions that unemployment is likely to take and the profound structural changes implied by the new post-Covid economy advocated by Brussels and Davos risk forcing the supporters of the 4DW to face their contradictions?

Unemployment kills, by definition, people who are not old enough to die

Around 15,000 people – the overwhelming majority of whom are under 60 years of age – die each year in France as a result of their social and economic condition, once co-morbidities have been excluded. This frightening figure is regularly recalled by Pierre Larrouturou, who accuses political leaders of having blood on their hands[4].

As far as we know, Pierre Larrouturou, now a Nouvelle Donne MEP and general rapporteur for the 2021 European budget, has never shown the same intransigence in his comments on the new economic situation that is spreading as a result of the “Covid crisis”.

Those in favour of the 4DW are well aware of the disastrous impact that the new digital and inclusive economy of the fourth industrial revolution is likely to have on employment. The 4DW is supposed to be a remedy for this collapse in employment, as well as a measure taken in the name of protecting public health and the climate.

It is interesting to note that,

in recent months, those who are most in favour of a reduction in working time have often been at the same time the most outspoken in demanding “health restrictions” which are synonymous with an absolutely dizzying economic and social break-up.

In the case of Hungary, this observation is all too obvious: while the government is responsible for all the “health restrictions”, the opposition – including the parties mentioned above which are in favour of the 4DW – has constantly overplayed the health issue, both for internal reasons (the more the economy sinks, the more the government will be held responsible) and for external reasons (as required by the roadmap of its Western sponsors, all of whom are strongly in favour of the all-health approach).

But in Hungary, and also in other V4 countries, why is the question of reducing working time, which is presented as a tool for improving working conditions, but above all as a measure for combating unemployment, being put on the table, when there is no mass unemployment as there is in other European countries?

The 4DW is presented by Momentum as a measure to be progressively implemented in order to be fully operational and widespread by 2030.

Does this mean that Central Europe is also likely to be affected by mass unemployment in the coming decade?

In any case, it would seem that Germany’s declining industrial and export power is part of the plan for the new green and inclusive economy and of a trend towards the regionalization of trade (at the continental level). Such a development is a potential blow in terms of employment for the Central European economies, as they are heavily dependent on the German export model[5] and the automotive industry. In Slovakia, factory closures are increasing, while in Hungary, the Mercedes factory in Kecskemét stopped production for three weeks this summer[6] and the Suzuki factory in Esztergom will be closed for two weeks in September.

The new economy will allegedly be more respectful of the environment and public health, and the 4DW is seen as one of its main components.

But there is much to be said about the effects of this new economy on public health, including, for example, the neurological, psychiatric and social consequences of digitization (another of its pillars), particularly for children.

Strangely, on these issues, 4DW advocates have been quite silent. Nowadays, employees are increasingly spending their free time digitally debasing themselves, and one more day off work would increase their dependence on digital tools and products. No wonder, then, that the members of the permafrost left who are demanding the 4DW stand alongside Big Tech companies and the World Economic Forum.