The pan¬≠dem¬≠ic inspired politi¬≠cians and coun¬≠try lead¬≠ers across the world to speak in favor of a reduced work week. New Zealand Prime Min¬≠is¬≠ter Jacin¬≠da Ardern has brought it up, as has San¬≠na Marin, the Prime Min¬≠is¬≠ter of Fin¬≠land. Germany‚Äôs largest trade union, a met¬≠al¬≠work¬≠ers‚Äô union, is push¬≠ing the idea hard, with sup¬≠port from the country‚Äôs Fed¬≠er¬≠al Min¬≠istry of Labor and Social Affairs. The Euro¬≠pean Com¬≠mis¬≠sion is con¬≠sid¬≠er¬≠ing a wage sub¬≠sidy pro¬≠gram to short¬≠en work¬≠ers‚Äô hours.
Accord¬≠ing to a study by the Cana¬≠di¬≠an Labor Eco¬≠nom¬≠ics Forum, low-income work¬≠ers in Cana¬≠da expe¬≠ri¬≠enced both the sharpest decrease in work¬≠ing hours and the sharpest increase. That‚Äôs because the Cana¬≠di¬≠an Emer¬≠gency Response Ben¬≠e¬≠fit (CERB), a month¬≠ly stipend of 2,000 Cana¬≠di¬≠an dol¬≠lars, was avail¬≠able to any¬≠one who lost work due to the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic, and whose month¬≠ly earn¬≠ings were now 1,000 Cana¬≠di¬≠an dol¬≠lars or less. But it didn‚Äôt apply to any¬≠one who vol¬≠un¬≠tar¬≠i¬≠ly left their job.
Among those who kept their jobs were essen¬≠tial work¬≠ers, most of whom are paid para¬≠dox¬≠i¬≠cal¬≠ly low wages‚ÄĒthey saw their jobs become more demand¬≠ing and more dan¬≠ger¬≠ous. For non-essen¬≠tial work¬≠ers whose work shift¬≠ed online, where their work¬≠ing hours did increase, this may have been mit¬≠i¬≠gat¬≠ed by the decrease in com¬≠mute time. Every¬≠one in between‚ÄĒpeo¬≠ple whose pan¬≠dem¬≠ic-relat¬≠ed job loss brought them under the $1,000¬†thresh¬≠old‚ÄĒsud¬≠den¬≠ly had more income and more time. Some actu¬≠al¬≠ly saw an¬†increase¬†in income, as the CERB amounts to more than a¬†month¬≠ly wage at the fed¬≠er¬≠al min¬≠i¬≠mum wage. Leah Gazan, a¬†Mem¬≠ber of Par¬≠lia¬≠ment in the province of Man¬≠i¬≠to¬≠ba, has¬†put forth¬†a¬†motion to con¬≠vert the CERB into a¬†uni¬≠ver¬≠sal basic income with¬≠out cut¬≠ting oth¬≠er social sup¬≠port¬†networks.¬†
Politi¬≠cians aren‚Äôt alone in think¬≠ing about the ben¬≠e¬≠fits of short¬≠er hours. Among the loud¬≠est pro¬≠po¬≠nents for cut¬≠ting hours is a¬†New Zealand hedge fund that¬†tri¬≠aled¬†a¬†four-day week and saw an increase in pro¬≠duc¬≠tiv¬≠i¬≠ty.¬†Oth¬≠er firms¬†have seen sim¬≠i¬≠lar results, espe¬≠cial¬≠ly in office set¬≠tings. Employ¬≠ees work¬≠ing exces¬≠sive hours are tired, stressed and more vul¬≠ner¬≠a¬≠ble to men¬≠tal ill¬≠ness or dis¬≠eases. Work¬≠ing exces¬≠sive hours also means we strug¬≠gle to meet our own needs‚ÄĒlike social¬≠iz¬≠ing, exer¬≠cis¬≠ing, eat¬≠ing prop¬≠er¬≠ly or even hav¬≠ing hob¬≠bies. As a¬†result, work¬≠ers com¬≠mod¬≠i¬≠fy things they would oth¬≠er¬≠wise do for fun, like car¬≠ing for chil¬≠dren or cook¬≠ing din¬≠ner. They hire migrant work¬≠ers for pal¬≠try wages or buy ready-made din¬≠ners assem¬≠bled by under¬≠paid fac¬≠to¬≠ry¬†workers.
A rad¬≠i¬≠cal short¬≠er work week goes fur¬≠ther than ask¬≠ing whether we can cut hours with¬≠out cut¬≠ting prof¬≠its. It chal¬≠lenges the cen¬≠tral role of work in our lives and asks what life could look like if the ben¬≠e¬≠fits of indus¬≠tri¬≠al¬≠iza¬≠tion were redis¬≠trib¬≠uted rather than accu¬≠mu¬≠lat¬≠ed at the top.
When the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic hit, Erin Socall lost her job as a pri¬≠vate chef in Toron¬≠to. She gave her¬≠self a day off, and then start¬≠ed bak¬≠ing full-time. She made bread for peo¬≠ple whose liveli¬≠hoods were affect¬≠ed by the cri¬≠sis, deliv¬≠er¬≠ing up to 20 loaves across the city sev¬≠er¬≠al times a week. This helped sup¬≠port a heav¬≠i¬≠ly over¬≠bur¬≠dened food secu¬≠ri¬≠ty sys¬≠tem, and also helped her escape the unat¬≠tain¬≠able stan¬≠dards set by her indus¬≠try that wore on her phys¬≠i¬≠cal and men¬≠tal health. Astrid Mohr, a stu¬≠dent at McGill Uni¬≠ver¬≠si¬≠ty, also start¬≠ed bak¬≠ing: She learned how to make crois¬≠sants, and start¬≠ed sell¬≠ing them to give the pro¬≠ceeds to food banks in the city. Both Mohr and Socall found them¬≠selves with time on their hands as the pan¬≠dem¬≠ic began. It‚Äôs that leisure time that allowed them to recon¬≠sid¬≠er the pur¬≠pose of their work, and build work¬≠ing habits that are health¬≠i¬≠er and more sus¬≠tain¬≠able for them.
Cook¬≠ing at home is one exam¬≠ple of what Auton¬≠o¬≠my, a¬†U.K.-based think tank that stud¬≠ies work, calls¬†‚Äúlow-car¬≠bon soft‚ÄĚ alter¬≠na¬≠tives to con¬≠sumerist behav¬≠ior. Its¬†2019¬†report¬†on the short¬≠er work week found that reduc¬≠ing work¬≠ing hours would reduce car¬≠bon emis¬≠sions and improve gen¬≠er¬≠al soci¬≠etal wel¬≠fare. It would reduce com¬≠mute traf¬≠fic and part¬≠ly replace it with walk¬≠ing or bik¬≠ing‚ÄĒmore low-car¬≠bon soft activ¬≠i¬≠ties. Auton¬≠o¬≠my also lays out a¬†tran¬≠si¬≠tion¬≠al path that pro¬≠pos¬≠es a¬†frame¬≠work for com¬≠pa¬≠nies to ensure that increased prof¬≠it leads to bet¬≠ter work¬≠ing con¬≠di¬≠tions for employ¬≠ees. An exam¬≠ple is the cre¬≠ation of a¬†gov¬≠ern¬≠ment orga¬≠ni¬≠za¬≠tion that would ensure that tech¬≠no¬≠log¬≠i¬≠cal inno¬≠va¬≠tion, like the cre¬≠ation of new machin¬≠ery that makes pro¬≠duc¬≠tion faster and eas¬≠i¬≠er, trans¬≠lates to bet¬≠ter work¬≠ing con¬≠di¬≠tions instead of mass lay¬≠offs and increased¬†profit.
Could we replace the whole food sup¬≠ply chain with home-baked bread? Unlike¬≠ly. But we could reduce depen¬≠den¬≠cy on labor-inten¬≠sive, high-ener¬≠gy prod¬≠ucts like microwave lasagna. Giv¬≠en that Amer¬≠i¬≠cans waste up to 40% of food, we could fur¬≠ther reduce indus¬≠tri¬≠al food pro¬≠duc¬≠tion. Our cities could pro¬≠mote local food pro¬≠duc¬≠tion like com¬≠mu¬≠ni¬≠ty-sup¬≠port¬≠ed agri¬≠cul¬≠ture and urban farm¬≠ing.
We could imag¬≠ine a food pro¬≠duc¬≠tion sys¬≠tem that relies much less on indus¬≠tri¬≠al¬≠ized agri¬≠cul¬≠ture. Fac¬≠to¬≠ry farms, whose work¬≠ing con¬≠di¬≠tions and envi¬≠ron¬≠men¬≠tal impact have been under increased scruti¬≠ny dur¬≠ing the Covid-19 pan¬≠dem¬≠ic, could be replaced with small¬≠er alter¬≠na¬≠tives that are more friend¬≠ly to work¬≠ers and the envi¬≠ron¬≠ment. Food fac¬≠to¬≠ry work¬≠ers who also ben¬≠e¬≠fit from the short¬≠er work week could work less and in bet¬≠ter con¬≠di¬≠tions to sup¬≠ple¬≠ment the local sup¬≠ply chain as need¬≠ed. That food sys¬≠tem would also bet¬≠ter resist crises like Covid-19, and improve food secu¬≠ri¬≠ty for peo¬≠ple who, under the cur¬≠rent econ¬≠o¬≠my, can‚Äôt always access food.
Food pro¬≠duc¬≠tion is the most tan¬≠gi¬≠ble exam¬≠ple of the ben¬≠e¬≠fit of a short¬≠er work week, but there are count¬≠less oth¬≠ers. By giv¬≠ing peo¬≠ple more time to care for them¬≠selves and each oth¬≠er, a short¬≠er work week pol¬≠i¬≠cy would increase over¬≠all health in soci¬≠ety, and par¬≠tial¬≠ly reduce the bur¬≠den of health¬≠care work¬≠ers. We‚Äôd need few¬≠er desk work¬≠out gad¬≠gets, less cof¬≠fee, and few¬≠er med¬≠ica¬≠tions to treat sleep depri¬≠va¬≠tion. Once we start point¬≠ing out indus¬≠tries that prof¬≠it off of the col¬≠lec¬≠tive exhaus¬≠tion caused by over¬≠work, it‚Äôs hard to stop.
But if our tran¬≠si¬≠tion to a short¬≠er work week con¬≠tin¬≠ues to evolve with¬≠out a social frame¬≠work behind it, it will con¬≠tin¬≠ue to repro¬≠duce the same inequal¬≠i¬≠ties we have seen dur¬≠ing this cri¬≠sis. Mohr, a stu¬≠dent with a finan¬≠cial¬≠ly sta¬≠ble fam¬≠i¬≠ly that housed and fed her dur¬≠ing the cri¬≠sis, was able to take this time to inten¬≠sive¬≠ly learn a new skill. Oth¬≠ers with the same inter¬≠ests, more needs, and per¬≠haps more knowl¬≠edge didn‚Äôt have that opportunity.
Cheyenne Sun¬≠dance, who runs a¬†social-jus¬≠tice ori¬≠ent¬≠ed urban farm in Toron¬≠to named¬†‚ÄúSun¬≠dance Har¬≠vest,‚ÄĚ spoke to this issue.¬†‚ÄúSome¬≠one who has the priv¬≠i¬≠lege of being able to go to their par¬≠ents‚Äô land ‚Ä¶ can start a¬†farm much, much soon¬≠er than some¬≠one who lives in a¬†high-rise apart¬≠ment,‚ÄĚ she notes. Some¬≠one with less income is more like¬≠ly to live in a¬†small apart¬≠ment with¬≠out access to land or space to grow food, and might have to wait years to access a¬†plot.
The ben¬≠e¬≠fits of a short¬≠er work week won‚Äôt reach those who need it the most: peo¬≠ple with low¬≠er incomes, who are dis¬≠pro¬≠por¬≠tion¬≠ate¬≠ly Black, Indige¬≠nous and peo¬≠ple of col¬≠or, unless it‚Äôs accom¬≠pa¬≠nied by social poli¬≠cies that very inten¬≠tion¬≠al¬≠ly include them. For instance, it‚Äôs impor¬≠tant to con¬≠sid¬≠er poli¬≠cies that would return land to Indige¬≠nous peo¬≠ple and sup¬≠port tra¬≠di¬≠tion¬≠al agriculture.
In order for a short¬≠er work week to cre¬≠ate struc¬≠tur¬≠al change, we have to under¬≠stand it as nei¬≠ther a panacea nor a reform, but rather a re-imag¬≠in¬≠ing of the pur¬≠pose of work and leisure, and a re-envi¬≠sion¬≠ing of the role that pro¬≠duc¬≠tiv¬≠i¬≠ty plays in our lives.
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on October 16, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Anna Roach is a fel¬≠low at the Toni Sta¬≠bile Cen¬≠ter for Inves¬≠tiga¬≠tive Jour¬≠nal¬≠ism at the Colum¬≠bia School of Jour¬≠nal¬≠ism. She writes about top¬≠ics includ¬≠ing social move¬≠ments, gen¬≠der and labor.