Saturday, June 25

Belgium studies the four-day working week, but with longer hours | Economy

A waiter at a café in Brussels, in October of last year,
A waiter at a café in Brussels, in October of last year,FRANCOIS LENOIR (Reuters)

The Government is studying the introduction of the four-day working week without reduction of working time, which would allow one more day to be off but would extend working hours to nine and a half hours. The proposal, received with little enthusiasm and many doubts by the social agents, has been raised by the Flemish liberal party Open-VLD within a catalog of proposals for the labor reform that the Belgian Executive prepares and will be debated in the negotiations of the Budget for 2022 in the coalition of seven parties of which Socialists, Christian Democrats and Greens are also part.

At the moment, the proposal for the formation of the prime minister, Alexander de Croo, does not generate consensus either within the Government or between employers and unions, with whom they will have to negotiate. Its defenders, including the French-speaking liberals of the Reform Movement, argue that it would allow a better reconciliation of professional and work life by leaving a more free day, it would reduce the risk of mental problems associated with work – such as the so-called “burnout syndrome ”- and it would be positive for the environment due to the reduction in travel that it would entail.

Critical voices, the majority, are directed above all to the fact that the daily workload would increase by lengthening the day, from the current seven hours and 36 minutes to nine and a half hours, which would not necessarily be better for the welfare of the individual. worker, work-life balance – especially for parents with children in school – or productivity.

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Belgium thus joins a debate that has been on the table for a long time, but has gained ground in Europe with the pandemic, which has shown the possibilities of organizing work in a different way. In Spain, the fashion multinational Desigual decided last week to introduce the four-day week with reduced wages for its workers, a trend that other large companies, such as Telefónica, are already exploring and some smaller ones apply.

The most relevant case is, perhaps, that of Iceland, which between 2015 and 2017 experienced a reduction in working time in the public sector from 40 to about 35 hours a week, spread over four days and without a reduction in salary. The measure was accompanied by measures to improve productivity, such as eliminating useless tasks or shorter meetings. The result was improved well-being and work-life balance for employees, and productivity was maintained or increased, according to an analysis by the Anatomy think tank. That “success” has led the unions to negotiate a reduction in working hours for 86% of the Icelandic workforce, according to their calculations.

Unions reject a redistribution of hours

Belgian parties and unions are now asking that the proposal follow those same fundamental lines there. The Minister of Employment, the socialist Pierre-Yves Dermagne, is in favor of the four-day week, but with a reduction in working time and without losing wages. And he advocates accompanying it with a “right to disconnect” to ensure that rest periods are respected. On the opposite side are the criticisms of the environment minister, Zakia Kathabbi: “I have always defended the reduction of working time, but here it is a redistribution. The rest day, as proposed in this formula, would be necessary to recover from the hours borrowed on the previous days, ”he said on Bel RTL radio.

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His party, the French-speaking Greens of Ecolo, will not support the initiative, while the Flemish ecologists of Groen are willing to support it as long as it is voluntary. The unions also criticize that it implies an increase in the daily workload. For the FGTB, the largest union in the country, this would reduce productivity, increase the risk in certain dangerous occupations and extend the time away from home up to eleven hours if the journey to the workplace is taken into account, something that would complicate the conciliation , especially those who have children in school. However, they open to negotiate the four-day week if work time is cut to tend towards 32 hours. “We have made huge productivity gains in the last 20 years, but we are still locked in the same work time. Where do those profits go? ”Its president, Thierry Bodson, told LN24.

The Belgian Federation of Companies, however, flatly refuses to reduce working time while maintaining salary, but is willing to give greater flexibility in certain cases if it applies to both the worker and the company. “Spreading a full time over four days could be a solution for women, who often have to take half days to combine professional and family life,” says its director, Monica De Jonghe.

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