Some 61 companies trialled a four-day week across Britain (Picture: Jesús Corrius)

A group of bosses have implemented a four-day week for their staff, and they found it cheered up their workers and didn’t eat into profits. A total of 61 companies in Britain tried it out for six months, organised by campaign group 4 Day Week. Of these companies, 56 extended the trial, and 19 decided to make a four-day week permanent.

Those who signed up for the trial, it should be noted, are mainly small “cutting edge companies”. To take a random example, one was “Team Custard Kraken, an indie board game designer and publisher, based in Brighton”.

Working fewer days for the same money sounds good. But when it’s implemented as a management tool it’s strictly limited.

So, for example, separately to this trial, Sainsbury’s supermarket bosses have offered the four-day option to workers at its head offices in Holborn, Coventry and Milton Keynes, as well as its warehouses—and store managers in all its 1,400  stores.

They still work their 37.5-hour contracts, but are “allowed” to spread the work out over any time in a seven‑day week. They are “freed up” so they can work four longer days, and are now graciously allowed to use the weekend to complete their work.

However, they are not permitted to take consecutive Fridays off work. And if you’re stacking the shelves or running the tills you won’t have the option.

The 4 Day Week group argues for the change partly based on the benefits for the workforce. But it also makes a clear play to the bosses. Its website enthuses, “Employers who move to a four-day week increase productivity and reduce costs (a Henley Business School study in 2021 estimated that UK businesses would save a combined £104 billion a year if a four-day week was implemented across the entire workforce).”

The battle over working hours has been central to workers’ struggle since the birth of industrial capitalism. Firms tried to pump more profits from workers by making them work longer, Trade unions fought back and tried to limit hours.

Karl Marx wrote how in the early days of the system the bosses’  “werewolf hunger for surplus labour” meant that “capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working day. It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight.”

The demand for the eight‑hour day was a focus for the whole of the trade union movement through much of the nineteenth century.

Capitalists themselves came to realise that just working people to death was not a realistic long-term policy. But it was struggle that won cuts in hours, holidays and a weekend. Workers can go much further now in their  demands for shorter hours.

A genuinely positive campaign would be 40 hours’ money for 30 hours’ work, and worked as flexibly as the task—not bosses’ profits— requires. Working fewer hours is good for our physical and mental health. It gives a vision of working as part of life rather than work taking over everything. It creates jobs and means more time for social interaction.

And we should remember that presently British workers gave their employers around £35 billion of free labour in the form of unpaid overtime—an average of 7.6 hours per worker per week. But unless there is an element of struggle, a four‑day week can become just another way of giving the appearance of change without the reality.

An example of the limitations of trying to cut the working week within the present set of capitalist priorities came in 2019. Labour indicated it would support a 32-hour week—within ten years. The announcement caused outrage from bosses and the Tories.

So shadow chancellor John McDonnell “clarified” that while the 32-hour working week would apply to everybody, it would only be implemented “over time as the economy grows”. He added, “It’s not an overnight thing.”

Using machinery and automation for the benefit of all and removing the profit motive can go much further than any bosses’ experiment.

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