The pandemic inspired politicians and country leaders across the world to speak in favor of a reduced work week. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has brought it up, as has Sanna Marin, the Prime Minister of Finland. Germany’s largest trade union, a metalworkers’ union, is pushing the idea hard, with support from the country’s Federal Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs. The European Commission is considering a wage subsidy program to shorten workers’ hours.
According to a study by the Canadian Labor Economics Forum, low-income workers in Canada experienced both the sharpest decrease in working hours and the sharpest increase. That’s because the Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), a monthly stipend of 2,000 Canadian dollars, was available to anyone who lost work due to the pandemic, and whose monthly earnings were now 1,000 Canadian dollars or less. But it didn’t apply to anyone who voluntarily left their job.
Among those who kept their jobs were essential workers, most of whom are paid paradoxically low wages — they saw their jobs become more demanding and more dangerous. For non-essential workers whose work shifted online, where their working hours did increase, this may have been mitigated by the decrease in commute time. Everyone in between — people whose pandemic-related job loss brought them under the $1,000 threshold — suddenly had more income and more time. Some actually saw an increase in income, as the CERB amounts to more than a monthly wage at the federal minimum wage. Leah Gazan, a Member of Parliament in the province of Manitoba, has put forth a motion to convert the CERB into a universal basic income without cutting other social support networks.
Politicians aren’t alone in thinking about the benefits of shorter hours. Among the loudest proponents for cutting hours is a New Zealand hedge fund that trialed a four-day week and saw an increase in productivity. Other firms have seen similar results, especially in office settings. Employees working excessive hours are tired, stressed and more vulnerable to mental illness or diseases. Working excessive hours also means we struggle to meet our own needs — like socializing, exercising, eating properly or even having hobbies. As a result, workers commodify things they would otherwise do for fun, like caring for children or cooking dinner. They hire migrant workers for paltry wages or buy ready-made dinners assembled by underpaid factory workers.
A radical shorter work week goes further than asking whether we can cut hours without cutting profits. It challenges the central role of work in our lives and asks what life could look like if the benefits of industrialization were redistributed rather than accumulated at the top.
When the pandemic hit, Erin Socall lost her job as a private chef in Toronto. She gave herself a day off, and then started baking full-time. She made bread for people whose livelihoods were affected by the crisis, delivering up to 20 loaves across the city several times a week. This helped support a heavily overburdened food security system, and also helped her escape the unattainable standards set by her industry that wore on her physical and mental health. Astrid Mohr, a student at McGill University, also started baking: She learned how to make croissants, and started selling them to give the proceeds to food banks in the city. Both Mohr and Socall found themselves with time on their hands as the pandemic began. It’s that leisure time that allowed them to reconsider the purpose of their work, and build working habits that are healthier and more sustainable for them.
Cooking at home is one example of what Autonomy, a U.K.-based think tank that studies work, calls “low-carbon soft” alternatives to consumerist behavior. Its 2019 report on the shorter work week found that reducing working hours would reduce carbon emissions and improve general societal welfare. It would reduce commute traffic and partly replace it with walking or biking — more low-carbon soft activities. Autonomy also lays out a transitional path that proposes a framework for companies to ensure that increased profit leads to better working conditions for employees. An example is the creation of a government organization that would ensure that technological innovation, like the creation of new machinery that makes production faster and easier, translates to better working conditions instead of mass layoffs and increased profit.
Could we replace the whole food supply chain with home-baked bread? Unlikely. But we could reduce dependency on labor-intensive, high-energy products like microwave lasagna. Given that Americans waste up to 40% of food, we could further reduce industrial food production. Our cities could promote local food production like community-supported agriculture and urban farming.
We could imagine a food production system that relies much less on industrialized agriculture. Factory farms, whose working conditions and environmental impact have been under increased scrutiny during the Covid-19 pandemic, could be replaced with smaller alternatives that are more friendly to workers and the environment. Food factory workers who also benefit from the shorter work week could work less and in better conditions to supplement the local supply chain as needed. That food system would also better resist crises like Covid-19, and improve food security for people who, under the current economy, can’t always access food.
Food production is the most tangible example of the benefit of a shorter work week, but there are countless others. By giving people more time to care for themselves and each other, a shorter work week policy would increase overall health in society, and partially reduce the burden of healthcare workers. We’d need fewer desk workout gadgets, less coffee, and fewer medications to treat sleep deprivation. Once we start pointing out industries that profit off of the collective exhaustion caused by overwork, it’s hard to stop.
But if our transition to a shorter work week continues to evolve without a social framework behind it, it will continue to reproduce the same inequalities we have seen during this crisis. Mohr, a student with a financially stable family that housed and fed her during the crisis, was able to take this time to intensively learn a new skill. Others with the same interests, more needs, and perhaps more knowledge didn’t have that opportunity.
Cheyenne Sundance, who runs a social-justice oriented urban farm in Toronto named “Sundance Harvest,” spoke to this issue. “Someone who has the privilege of being able to go to their parents’ land … can start a farm much, much sooner than someone who lives in a high-rise apartment,” she notes. Someone with less income is more likely to live in a small apartment without access to land or space to grow food, and might have to wait years to access a plot.
The benefits of a shorter work week won’t reach those who need it the most: people with lower incomes, who are disproportionately Black, Indigenous and people of color, unless it’s accompanied by social policies that very intentionally include them. For instance, it’s important to consider policies that would return land to Indigenous people and support traditional agriculture.
In order for a shorter work week to create structural change, we have to understand it as neither a panacea nor a reform, but rather a re-imagining of the purpose of work and leisure, and a re-envisioning of the role that productivity plays in our lives.
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Anna Bianca Roach is a fellow at the Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at the Columbia School of Journalism. She writes about topics including social movements, gender and labor.