Belgium considers four-day working week

Four day week

The Belgium Federal Government is discussing a proposal to shorten a full-time working week from five to four days

A proposal was tabled by the liberals, aiming to make the working week more flexible: full-time employees would still work 38 or 40 hours but spread over four days instead of five.

On Thursday, a spokesperson for the Belgian economy and labour minister Pierre-Yves Dermagne said that the proposals were “currently being discussed within the Belgian federal government” as part of a broader programme of labour market reforms.

The shift to a four-day working week could come with a possible announcement as soon as this weekend, the government spokesperson confirmed.

“More clarity should be provided on Sunday or Monday regarding the proposal,” they said.

Dermagne considers the four-day working week a “fundamental matter” after the COVID-19 pandemic sparked major shifts in many people’s working situations, the spokesperson said.

People would still work the same number of hours per week under the proposals being discussed, said.

The government wants to encourage companies to introduce longer working days of 9.5 hours. In exchange, employees will get an extra day off.

“In principle, we think it is good towards the freedom of the employee, but of course it has to be a choice of the employee,” chair of the Flemish green party, Meyrem Almaci told VTM News.

“It is about how they organise their life. It has to fit into people’s lives,” she said, stressing that the social partners must be heard before any decision is made.

Meanwhile, the socialist trade union already spoke out against the idea, stressing that above all, the aim should be that full-time employees work fewer hours per week.

Next weekend, the Federal Government will discuss in which sectors the system could be introduced, and how to avoid making the working day too long.

Four-day week in 2022?

Once committed to the proposal, Belgium’s federal government will work out the details of moving to a four-day week in collaboration with representatives of industry and trade unions.

That process could take at least six months, the spokesperson estimated, before the political process of passing the proposal into law can begin.

The government has “no intention” of making a four-day week mandatory.

Will Stronge, director of UK think tank Autonomy which advocates for a shorter working week, said reducing the total number of hours worked was key to unlocking health benefits for workers.

“This is just compressed hours, so not strictly a shorter working week. Workers probably won’t get nearly the same health and well-being benefits by compressing rather than reducing,” he said.

“This will also mean that any increases in productivity will be minimal, as workers will be just as, if not more, tired”.

Iceland trial an ‘overwhelming success’

A 2021 study of the trials by Iceland’s Association for Sustainable Democracy (Alda) and UK think tank Autonomy found that workers taking part reported a “powerful positive effect on work-life balance”.

The report noted that workers that participated “took on fewer hours and enjoyed greater well-being, improved work-life balance and a better cooperative spirit in the workplace — all while maintaining existing standards of performance and productivity.” Its results show that we must decouple working hours from productivity and instead take a deeper look at how we work.

“This study shows that the world’s largest ever trial of a shorter working week in the public sector was by all measures an overwhelming success,” said Will Stronge, Director of Research at Autonomy.

“It shows that the public sector is ripe for being a pioneer of shorter working weeks – and lessons can be learned for other governments”. — Euronews

If passed into law, Belgium’s proposals would leapfrog previous European trials of four-day working weeks in Spain and Iceland.

Trials of the shorter work week in Iceland in 2017 and 2015 left workers less stressed and reduced the risk of burnout, with no negative effect on productivity or service provision, researchers found.

Autonomy found that workers taking part reported a “powerful positive effect on work-life balance”.

These included having more time to spend with their children or pursuing hobbies.

Men in heterosexual relationships were also more likely to take on household chores, the researchers found.

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