Toggle high contrast
Mum with kids in the park
i
Getty/Hero Images

A four-day week with decent pay for all? It’s the future

Author
Published date
Trade unions fought for an eight-hour day in the 19th century and a two-day weekend in the 20th. In the 21st, it’s time to take the next step and win a four-day week with fair pay for all.
  • Trade unions have a long history of standing up for a decent work-life balance in the face of rapid industrial change.
  • As tech increases productivity in the future, we want everyone to get richer, with higher wages, less time at work and more time with their families.

  • That’s why the TUC is calling for a four-day working week this century, with decent pay for everyone.

When the first Trades Union Congress was held back in 1868, the average worker toiled for 62 hours a week. Today it’s 32 if you include people who work part time.

The halving of the working week didn’t happen by magic. And it wasn’t gifted by compassionate governments or kind-hearted bosses.

It was won by the trade unions that fought for an eight-hour day in the nineteenth century and a two-day weekend and paid holidays in the twentieth.

Today we’re living through a time of rapid industrial disruption, just as our forebears did 150 years ago.

And like then, capital is grabbing more of the gains and workers are being short changed.

But as tech increases productivity, we want everyone to get richer, with higher wages, less time at work and more time with their families.

And if even half of the promised productivity gains from the tech revolution are true, then we can afford to make it happen.

That’s why the TUC is now calling for a four-day working week this century, with decent pay for everyone.

Because if we’re to keep winning the better life that working people deserve, we need to lift our ambition on working time again.

A history of campaigning for shorter working time

The fight for decent working hours has always been at the heart of union campaigning.

The nineteenth century socialist pioneer Robert Owen first popularised the demand for an 8-hour day with the slogan: ‘ Eight hours' labour, Eight hours' recreation, Eight hours' rest’.

His words lit a fire under the trade union movement, which started pushing for change in the decades that followed.

It was a long, hard fight. The first legislation to put clear limits on the working day didn’t arrive until the 1874 Factory Acts – and at ten hours they still fell short of union demands.

By 1890, the international trade union movement was calling for ‘a great international demonstration’ in all countries and cities in favour of an eight-hour day.

Hundreds of thousands gathered at Hyde Park that May Day, but workers would have to wait until the early 1900s before it was adopted in some key industries.

Yet by the time the International Labour Organisation (ILO) met for the first time in 1919, ‘the principle of the 8 hours day or of the 48 hours week’ was so widely accepted that it formed the basis for the organisation’s first convention.

Trade unions had succeeded in changing the argument – and showing that the benefits of new technology could be passed on to workers.

Today we’re living through another period of intense technological change. And like our predecessors, we demand a fair share for workers.

That’s why it’s time to look at shortening the working week again.

So why are trade unions arguing for this?

It’s partly down to the increasing potential of technology and what this will mean for workers.

Until now, there’s been a lot of negativity about how automation will destroy good, well-paid jobs and leave workers high and dry.

But we don’t think it should be all doom and gloom, especially if the tech revolution brings about an expected boost in productivity.

The consultancy firm PWC estimates that UK GDP will be up to 10 per cent higher in 2030 as a result of artificial intelligence.

That’s a boost of more than £20bn – or up to £2,300 extra spending a year for every household in the country.

If these predications are accurate, then it’s only right that workers share the benefits.

And that means reducing the time they work – just as it did all those years ago.

Trade unions are already winning

Our call to reduce working time isn’t just a response to automation. We’re also concerned about the increasingly blurred boundaries between work and home life.

A good example is zero-hours contracts, which now affect over 800,000 people in the UK.

ZHCs offer no fixed hours of work, leaving employees constantly at the beck and call of their employer. According to our research, over half of workers have had a shift cancelled at less than a day’s notice.

The expectation that workers must be ‘always on call’ is also growing, with almost a third of workers feeling that remote access means they can’t switch off in their personal time.

This comes on top of the huge amount of unpaid overtime that workers are already putting in – worth up £32bn last year alone by our estimations.

We see the call for a shorter working week as part of the growing debate about what the ILO has called ‘time sovereignty’. Instead of allowing bosses to control their every waking hour, we think new tech should give workers more control over the time they work.

It’s also on our agenda because unions are already delivering change.

In Germany, the IG Metall union recently won a 28-hour work week for metalworkers. In Ireland, unions have helped to deliver a near total ban on zero-hours contracts.

And in France, unions have secured a ‘right to switch off’ for workers, so companies with more than 50 employees now have to negotiate the use of digital technologies to ensure respect for workers’ rest, holiday periods and personal lives.

UK unions are making good progress too, with the Communication Workers Union (CWU) recently negotiating a deal with Royal Mail to reduce the working week from 39 to 35 hours a week by 2022.

The fact that things are changing this much already proves that when working people come together in a union they can still win radical change.

It’s time to change the time we work

When our General Secretary Frances O’Grady put a four-day working week on the campaign agenda at our 150th Congress last year, we didn’t know how quickly the idea would take off.

But this is an idea whose time has come. Since last September’s Congress, the Labour Party has commissioned an enquiry into shorter working time.

And we’ve seen a wave of interest from employers too – including those who have already moved to a shorter working week.

Today, people take the five-day working week for granted. But history shows that it was only won by unions standing up against harsh working conditions and a decent work-life balance.

In the 21st century, it’s time to take the next step and win that four-day week with fair pay for all.

Together we can make it happen.