Enlarged leisure: Collective action for a four-day week

In his 1967 essay Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism, E. P. Thompson succinctly describes how the politics of time evolved through various stages of industrial transition:

“The first generation of factory workers were taught by their masters the importance of time; the second generation formed their short-time committees in the ten-hour movement; the third generation struck for overtime or time-and-a half.”

The demand for the ten- and then the eight-hour day was one of the labour movement’s first major campaigns. The eight-hour day was proposed at the International Workers Congress in Germany in 1866. The campaign featured heavily in the ‘new unionism’ of the late 1880s and made significant progress, as reported at the TUC’s 1889 Congress. Indeed, the first Convention adopted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1919 was the Hours of Work (Industry) Convention.

This campaign, and subsequent union campaigns on working time, made significant gains. The Factory Act of 1874 was the first to set a clear limit on the working day (for limited groups of workers). The TUC was influential in establishing the post-1945 40-hour week. In 1944 trade union leaders called for a negotiated reduction as a part of the transition to a peacetime economy – with negotiations underpinned by threat of legal action by the Ministry of Labour. More recently, in the 1980s and 1990s, a campaign by the engineering unions lowered the basic working week to 37.5 hours, with some employers going down to 35. And from 1998 onwards unions have also used the working time regulations to help fight excessive working hours.

Reductions in working time are one of the key ways in which productivity gains have been shared with workers. The average working week in the UK has almost halved since 1868, falling from 62 hours to around 32 hours today. International evidence suggests that more organised workforces could go further still. The average UK worker is working two hours longer a week than their German counterpart, four hours longer than the average Danish worker, and seven more hours than the typical worker in the Netherlands.

It’s probably unsurprising that most workers say that they’d rather move towards a more northern European working day – working shorter hours for the same amount of pay. But this is the consistent message that comes out of research. The CIPD’s 2018 research into ‘working lives’ found that the average employee works five hours per week more than they would like, with one in four working ten hours more than their preference. And when we at the TUC asked workers to imagine a world in which more efficient production enabled a reduction in working time, a four-day week was overwhelmingly the most popular choice.

Significant productivity gains are forecast from the introduction of new technology. The government estimates that robots and autonomous systems could deliver a £200bn boost to output. PriceWaterhouseCoopers suggest a similar figure for AI. If we begin to see these delivered, realising workers’ ambitions for a four-day week should be one way in which we ensure that the pay-off from productivity improvements is fairly shared.

Our history should give us faith in the potential for workers to fight for the gains from technological innovation to deliver more time outside work. But the present suggests that instead what’s described as innovation is often being used not to liberate people from work, but to create a situation in which work is always present, and people are expected to be constantly available to perform it.

We can see this most clearly in the rise of ‘on demand’ platforms, and the attempt to package work into ever smaller pieces, with competition to perform each package of work driving down costs for employers. The courts have shown clearly in the case of Uber that the employer has done nothing to create a new form of work. Instead, they’ve simply sought to deny workers’ rights, including the right to a minimum wage.

The idea that workers should be available for work without being paid is at the heart of other forms of insecure work that have little to do with technology. Polling of zero hours contract workers found that three quarters had been offered work within the next day. Over half have had a shift cancelled with less than 24 hours’ notice. The lack of a secure stream of work – and pay – means that workers are often required to be ‘on demand’ at all times in order to try and make up a decent week’s wage.

The increased speed of communications has helped enable this form of work. It has also led to greater expectations that workers who do have secure hours will be available in their non-working time. In research for the TUC, one in seven workers said that the impact of new technology at work has increased working hours, as they can be reached more easily when at home. In research conducted by the CIPD in 2017, a third of workers said that having remote access to the workplace means they can’t switch off in their personal time. The challenge here is not only to extend non-working time, but to protect the time we have already won.

There’s real scope for optimism here too, with unions finding new ways to campaign and win this protection. It’s unions who have taken on the platform companies in the courts and fought against the rise in zero hours contracts. And in France, it was unions who pioneered collective agreements on the ‘right to switch off’, now enshrined in a national law that requires companies with more than 50 employees to negotiate the use of ICT, ensuring respect for workers’ rest, holiday periods and personal lives.

In the article by E. P. Thompson with which this piece began, the historian focused on how the discipline of industrial work changes internal conceptions of time.

“If we are to have enlarged leisure, in an automated future, the problem is not ‘how are men going to be able to consume all these additional time-units of leisure?’ but ‘what will be the capacity for experience of the men who have this undirected time to live?’”

This ‘enlarged leisure’ should be firmly on our agenda for the future of work. At present, working practices are threatening to delete the boundaries between working and non-working time. This leads not to more leisure, but to a culture in which workers are required to be constantly at the beck and call of the boss.

For more than 150 years, battles over time have been at the heart of the union movement. Over the long term, collective action has been able to secure gains for workers – in the form of more leisure and higher living standards. It’s that collective action that will be necessary to deliver further gains as we face the future.


Kate Bell is Head of Rights, International Social and Economics at the Trades Union Congress

Image credit: Echo Grid on Unsplash