Is a 32 hour work week a viable option?

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On 23rd September 2019, the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, announced that Labour is planning to cut down the average time of a working week to 32 hours. 

Yesterday, John McDonnell stated in a party conference that the next Labour government is planning to cut down the work week to 32 hours within the next decade.

Mr McDonnell stated that this would be possible to achieve with no reduction to pay and no job losses. He further stated that collective bargaining would be a tool utilised to negotiate working hours. In addition, a Working Time Commission would possess the power to suggest an increase in statutory leave entitlement to the government.

Mr McDonnell stated:

We should work to live, not live to work. Thanks to past Labour governments but mainly thanks to the trade union movement, the average full-time working week fell from nearly 65 hours in the 1860s to 43 hours in the 1970s.

As society got richer, we could spend fewer hours at work. But in recent decades progress has stalled. People in our country today work the longest average full-time hours in Europe apart from Greece and Austria. And since the 1980s the link between increasing productivity matched by expanding free time has been broken. It’s time to put that right.

In response to this, Andrew Willis, head of legal at Croner, a HR and employment law consultancy, gave his opinion about how viable this proposal is. Mr. Willis said:

Fewer hours spent in work with no drop in pay may sound like music to the ears of the general UK workforce but employers are considerably less likely to raise a smile at this most recent Labour declaration.

Whether UK employers will be able to make the proposals work in their organisation will be influenced by several factors with many looking for new ways to work more quickly such as taking on more staff or embracing more efficient technology. Although coming at a cost, this may be the answer for manufacturers and other employers who rely on mechanical equipment in their operations. The problem a reduction will cause for other employers, whose work relies on human input like many care or counselling providers, drivers or journalists, will not be so simple to fix, especially in industries, such as the NHS, where the current workforce is already famously overstretched.

Workers who wish to work longer hours than the current restrictions allow for can legally do so by agreeing to ‘opt out’ of the maximum level. McDonnell also announced that this ability to opt out would be removed, essentially tying the hands of a worker who is content to work longer hours. McDonnell’s aim of providing more leisure time with “no loss of pay” for workers may hit hard in the pockets of those who choose, for their reasons, to work more hours.

On the other hand, a better work/life balance for their workforce appears to have risen higher on the agenda for many employers. An overall reduction in working hours will be seen as an official stamp on a direction in which employers are already travelling. However, for now, these employers are few and far between.

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