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The 4-day workweek: is it getting closer?

A pilot test could launch in 2022, as authorities warn that such change needs consensus and certainty that companies will not use it to cut salaries

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13 November 2021 12:02 PM

by

Guifré Jordan|Barcelona

A myriad of bright and brash colors, no straight lines, unpredictable shapes, and unexpected fashion designs. This is Desigual, a Catalan clothing brand born in 1984. It leaves no one indifferent – and their work organization is no exception.

On October 7, 86% of its employees in Barcelona voted to work four, instead of five, days a week. They now have a 34.5-hour workweek rather than a 39.5 hour one, meaning their weeks are 13% shorter, but they have only taken a 6.5% salary cut – the company makes up for the other 6.5%.

"For me at least, and I think for a lot of people here, this is the way of the future. This idea could not have come from any other company," said Desigual designer Roser Loureiro.

Yet, not everyone is that enthusiastic. Trade unions warn of a potential sharp workload increase and complain the proposed deal was not negotiated with workers' representatives, but rather a unilateral initiative by the leadership.

A representative for UGT union, Javi González, told Catalan News that while none of the workers in disagreement have taken the vote to court, an undisclosed number have quit. For him, the salaries in the sector are already precarious enough, even before the reduction.

The UGT union is trying to organize a workers’ council which could revert the agreement – but so far, nobody has volunteered to do so. Meanwhile, a month later Desigual has declined to comment on how things have been going.

Is this initiative what should be understood as a 4-day workweek? For those campaigning for it, probably not: not lowering salaries is one of their key demands.

Más País, a small anti-austerity party in Spain that advocates for the 4-day week, believes it is a priority for everyone's health, for society at large, and for the environment.

"It is a democratic measure; anyone without free time is not free," said party leader Íñigo Errejón in Spain's Congress in December 2020.

"It is a green measure. If we reduce commutes, we reduce greenhouse gas emissions," he added. 

"We live in societies under a lot of stress, without time to eat healthily and take care of our relatives."

This political force has managed to get the Spanish government to spend 10 million euros next year – if the 2022 budget passes – on a pilot test for companies that want to try it out. This scheme could affect 160 firms and 3,000 workers, who will not see their salaries cut, but their working hours "reduced by 10% to 20%" over five or four days, Héctor Tejero, the MP in the Madrid region assembly who is leading the negotiation with Spain's industry ministry, told Catalan News.

Firms will be compensated with money to spend on making the plan workable, "improving the firm's productivity or hiring extra people," he added. "It is an aid to innovation."

Details on how this pilot test will work if the budget passes are expected to be announced by the Socialist-led government next week, and Más País' idea is that if it works, pilot test funds should increase in the coming years.

The transition to working four, and not five days, also has its opponents. An economist at IESE business school, Núria Chinchilla, recently told Time magazine that "it is a very difficult time, with the economy gravely affected. Any talk of increasing costs to businesses is contradictory to economic recovery. Maybe this is not the right moment."

Catalan News also talked to Catalan labor department sources, which say the 4-day week debate has to be tackled "through consensus" with all of the parties involved and avoiding "breaches of the workers' statute of rights" such as reducing hours but also salaries. "In the face of major working condition changes, guarantees are needed."

They also call on Spain to "follow the path" of working towards consensus, stressing that the authority to change labor's legal framework lies with Madrid, not Catalonia.

Its advisory body, CTESC, admits they have not yet been told to tackle the issue. But while it is not a hot topic in Catalonia now, its president, Toni Mora, said in an interview with this media outlet that "everyone agrees that this is not a topic to shelve."

"This debate can be academic, social, political, but above all, and taking into account that it is on working hours, it has to involve businesses, unions, and collective bargaining," he added. Mora said a comprehensive debate is needed, and not just a law - for instance, he said, the 35-hour week in France was difficult to implement.

The CTESC head also said that this measure could change depending on the sector, and also insisted that reaching consensus out of a debate would be preferable over tense scenarios such as the historic La Canadenca factory strike in Barcelona in 1919, one of the biggest landmarks worldwide in the workers' movement – a month-long stoppage, including leaving the Catalan capital without electricity and transports led to the first law limiting the working day to eight hours – and 40 hours a week, with some exceptions, the same amount of hours as now, 102 years later.

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  • Desigual headquarters in Barcelona (by Albert Cadanet)

  • Desigual headquarters in Barcelona (by Albert Cadanet)

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