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Explained: What is Japan’s four-day work week proposal?

The idea is to improve employees’ productivity, but some employers are skeptical if productivity will be boosted enough to compensate for the lost work day.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: June 26, 2021 8:25:55 am
People wearing protective masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walk along a pedestrian crossing Friday, June 25, 2021, in Tokyo. The Japanese capital confirmed more than 560 new coronavirus cases on Friday. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)

In its annual economy guidelines, Japan’s government has announced its plans to urge employers to initiate a four-day work week instead of the current five-day work week. These guidelines were finalised last week by Japan’s prime minister Yoshihide Suga and aim to bring about work-life balance, especially for people who have to take care of their families or want to learn new skills.

So what is the policy?

The Mainichi reported that the policy has been implemented keeping in mind the labour shortage in the country. The idea is to improve employees’ productivity, but some employers are skeptical if productivity will be boosted enough to compensate for the lost work day, Mainichi reported. On the other hand, employees are fearing a pay cut since they will be working one day less.

“Among expected advantages are helping people with family-care responsibilities avoid the need to quit their jobs, promotion of recurrent education, and helping more people take on side jobs,” the report said.

Japanese workers are known to be overworked, in fact, the word ‘karoshi’ which means death from overwork was invented in the country in the 1970s in order to refer to deaths that resulted from stress and other related pressures, a BBC report noted.

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According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), as of 2020 an average worker in Japan works for about 1598 hours in a year, which is less than workers in the US who work 1767 hours annually, but more than workers in Germany, United Kingdom, France and Italy with 1332, 1367, 1402 and 1559 hours worked annually in each of these countries, respectively.

People wearing protective masks to help curb the spread of the coronavirus walk along a pedestrian crossing in Tokyo. (AP)

Further, as of the first quarter of 2021, the employment rate for the working age population in Japan is 77.6 per cent, which is more than that of Italy, US, UK, Germany, France, Canada but lower than employment rates in Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Have any other countries tested a four-day work week?

The concept of a four-day work week has gained traction due to the coronavirus pandemic because of which millions were confined to their homes for months and were spending more time with their families as a result. This raised questions about what a post-pandemic working culture would look like. Some companies, including Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook, announced early on in the pandemic that they would give their employees the option to work from home permanently.

In December last year, Unilever New Zealand rolled out a one-year experiment in which it would allow 81 of its employees to work four-day work weeks at the same salary to see if it would have any significant impact on their productivity and work-life balance. The country’s prime minister Jacinda Ardern had supported this idea in May 2020 as a way to boost the country’s economy.

Apart from companies, some countries have also tried to experiment with more flexible working hours. Spain, for instance, announced earlier this year that it would experiment with a four-day work week. In March, The Guardian reported that the Spanish government had agreed to a proposal put forward by a small leftwing party called Más País. The idea is to initiate 32-hour work weeks in a bid to increase productivity, mental health and overall work-life balance for employees. The Guardian report said that in order to implement this Más País has proposed a project that would cost €50 million and would allow companies to roll out four-day work weeks with minimum risk.

Where does India fit into this debate?

Initiating a four-day work week in a country like India faces a unique challenge. For one, most of India’s workforce is in the unorganised sector, which means these workers don’t have fixed timings and terms of employment or paid leave.

In 2017, the share of organised sector workers which means those workers who have fixed timings, employment contracts, paid leave and other benefits comprised just about 14 per cent of all the people employed in the country. This means that more than 80 per cent of the Indian workforce is engaged in informal work.

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