Would an average working week in the UK of 32 hours be viable?
It has been announced that under a Labour government, the average working week in the UK could be cut to 32 hours within 10 years. Further, the shadow chancellor said the cut could be done with "no loss of pay". This, at first glance, seems to be a good deal for employees. But it is important to note that this would not be able to be directly enforced on businesses.
It is instead a political commitment to attempt to influence the UK labour market to work towards a considerable reduction in the hours worked in the average working week. There is no doubt that this would be a very significant change as currently UK employees work on average two and a half weeks longer than EU counterparts over the course of a year (ADP research) and seemingly have a culture of long working hours as the current average UK full-time working week is 42.5 hours.
Think-tank the New Economics Foundation (NEF) has a campaign for this reduction in weekly working time to 32 hours spread over four days without a reduction in pay which has been open since 2010. They claim that “shorter working hours without a loss in pay offers a way to tackle symptoms of overwork, providing people with more time to recuperate, participate in democratic process and fulfil caring responsibilities”.
The Labour-commissioned report on the subject, written by Robert Skidelsky, differs from the above campaign however in that it states that imposing a four day week would not be “realistic or even desirable”.
Currently, employers have obligations under the Working Time Regulations 1998 (WTR) to take all reasonable steps in keeping with the need to protect workers' health and safety to ensure that each worker's average working time (including overtime) does not exceed 48 hours per week. This limit on average working hours does not apply if the employer has "obtained the worker's agreement in writing" to perform work in excess of the limit. Mr McDonnell also vowed to end this UK's opt out from the EU working time directive.
It remains to be seen how this would affect the economy if it was put into motion, with many businesses fearing that it would have significant impacts on profits and productivity. Whilst advocates of the 32 hour working week argue that productivity is actually improved as well as the mental health of employees and an improvement to gender equality when the hours in a working week are reduced.