Fórsa has added its voice to international trade union demands for reduced working time to ensure that workers share the benefits of increased productivity from technological change.
Speaking at an international conference on the future of working time in Dublin last week, the union’s deputy general secretary Kevin Callinan said reduced working time has emerged as a central issue in international debates about the future of work.
He also told delegates that the union would continue to seek to reverse increases in working time introduced in the civil and public service during the economic crisis. He said increased working time went against international trends in public policy.
“Trade unions don’t want to impede economic progress and we know that technology has the potential to create jobs and take the drudgery and danger out of current workplace tasks. But we are determined to secure a fairer share of the benefits of economic growth and technological advances for all workers in all sectors of the economy, including through reduced working time,” he said.
The conference also heard from Kate Bell, head of economic and social affairs at the UK Trade Union Congress (TUC), which has put the demand for a four-day week at the centre of its response to automation and productivity-driving technological change.
“Technology enables us to work cheaper and faster, and that should make us all better off. The British government estimates that robots and autonomous technology could boost GDP by around £200 billion a year. But if we raise our productivity, isn’t it worth asking whether we could be working four days rather than five while producing the same amount?
“That’s how workers have historically benefited from improvements in technology. The reduction in average working hours from over 60 a week in 1868 – 150 years ago – to just over 30 today is one example. The weekend, which was seen as an unaffordable luxury until around the middle of the twentieth century, is another. Several generations on, we have the chance to fight for a fairer share for everyone, including through a four day week,” she said.
Kevin Callinan told the conference it was almost 90 years since economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that productivity improvements would eventually lead to a 15-hour working week.
“His reasoning was straightforward enough. By producing more with less, our needs would be met through less work and there would be more time for leisure. Even Keynes could scarcely have conceived of the gains in productivity that have been achieved since he made his prediction, especially in recent decades. And yet the length of the working week has remained more or less the same,” he said.
The conference, organised by Fórsa, brought together trade unionists and working time experts from Ireland, Germany and the UK. It came in response to the large number of motions about working time submitted to Fórsa’s national conference last May, when an executive motion committed the union to work with others to reduce working time in all sectors of the economy.
Aidan Harper, director of the UK-based ‘4-Day Week Campaign’, said international studies show no positive correlation between working hours and wealth. “Countries who work fewer hours tend to have higher levels of productivity, as well as greater amounts of wealth per person. A reduction in working time is entirely feasible with current levels of technology and the benefits for society, gender equality, the economy and the environment can be significant. Time must become political once again,” he said.
Conference speakers also highlighted the gender aspects of working time, specifically for women with childcare and other caring responsibilities, as well as the need for workers to have control over their working hours in an era of zero-hours’ contracts and other new forms of work organisation.
Fórsa live streamed the event so if you'd like to watch one or all of the speakers' presentations, you can do so over on our Facebook page.