Making up for lost time

Reducing working hours in manufacturing: a review of evidence

The shorter working week has been at the core of the labour movement since its inception. Trade unions have always fought to ensure that the significant gains from an increasingly productive economy were shared fairly with workers in the form of shorter hours, as well as improved pay and conditions.

For most of the twentieth century, up until the early 1980s, strong collective bargaining ensured that working hours decreased significantly for workers. Over this period, gains in productivity and wages and reductions in time spent at work went hand-in-hand. However, since 1980, while productivity and wages have broadly risen in tandem, gains for workers in terms of leisure time, the measure of how much time workers have away from work, have stagnated.

Our analysis suggests that there is, in effect, a backlog of productivity gains in the British economy, where over the last four decades increases in productivity have not flowed to workers in the form of reduced working time, and this has not been compensated for with increased wages. Had the post-WWII trend of steady increases in leisure time in line with productivity growth continued beyond 1980, our analysis indicates that the full-time working week today would be at least 4.2 hours shorter. This observable trend is especially acute in the manufacturing sector, where productivity has improved faster than the rest of the economy in recent decades, in part due to the introduction of new technologies. A cross-country comparison suggests that policies enacted in the UK more than elsewhere in Europe, such as the deregulation of the labour market and a reduction of the role of collective bargaining in setting working conditions, have played a role in depriving British workers of leisure-time gains that they were on track to receive.

Those setting their sights on a new era of industrial relations in the UK should consider this a lost four decades of leisure time for workers. With a renewed politics of time which focuses on orienting individual workplaces and the economy at large towards improving work-life balance as a key marker of economic achievement, campaigners and trade unions can be much more ambitious in claiming shorter hours for workers. The fairness and justice case for workers to share the gains of future automation is amplified by the fact that for decades, those gains have not been shared.

Looking ahead, future reductions in working time could bring considerable benefits to the manufacturing sector in the UK. These benefits include increased levels of productivity from well-rested workers with higher levels of wellbeing, the righting of past wrongs through the fair distribution of productivity gains among workers, proactively addressing the challenges of automation, improving workplace health and safety, and improving equality and work-life balance across the sector to ensure the effective recruitment of a new generation of motivated and skilled workers. Shortening working time can be seen as a major policy lever through which increased spending in the economy can give UK productivity the boost it desperately needs through increased leisure time and reduced underemployment.

This analysis is made amid a recent revival in the public and political debate on working time in the UK, especially around the notion of the four-day working week – an ambition supported openly by the TUC, the Labour and Green parties, and a new wave of businesses who have successfully made the move to shorter hours. A few examples of businesses include Indycube, Pursuit Marketing, Legacy Events, Radioactive PR, Curveball Media, Advice Direct Scotland, Aizle Restaurant, and CMG Technologies.

We look at eight current and historical case studies – including a Toyota factory in Sweden, an Airbus plant in Wales, and Bosch Diesel in the Czech Republic – which demonstrate the malleability of working time in manufacturing and the ability for unions and organisations to establish new models of working time, be they reduced working weeks, increased holiday, shortened shifts, or new allowances for caring leave, which improve quality of life for workers.

This report analyses these case studies to draw out lessons from the successful campaign for and implementation of shorter hours to inform future industrial campaigns. We highlight three notable lessons from their achievements:

1. Unions are a proven vehicle to secure reduced working hours in a democratic
and inclusive way, for example through campaigning, setting up working time
committees, and carrying out workforce surveys.
Successful campaigns have reached beyond the existing union membership and have inspired involvement from workers of different genders, ages, and roles. In the absence of national union agreements, these changes must be won at a company or group level, meaning that the active involvement of a well-informed workforce is crucial. 

2. Bargaining for shorter hours can be responsive to the financial performance of a firm or sector and can be used to reflect the priorities of the workforce during periods of change. For example, using reduced hours as a means to effectively boost per-hour wages, avoiding the threat of redundancies from technological unemployment, enabling workers to perform caring responsibilities at home, or as a means for employers to appeal to prospective workers by offering a favourable deal. Changes to working time can be wide-ranging, including holidays and tailored working patterns over a week, fortnight, month, or year.

3. Working time campaigns can catalyse an innovation of workplace practices lead by workers. As those closest to day-to-day workplace practices, workers and their unions are often best placed to lead on improvements to operational processes and shift design. Some have invented new systems, redesigned roles and tasks, and incorporated new technologies into workplaces to increase efficiency and further support the implementation of working time reduction. These changes present gains for both employers, who see productivity improve, and workers, who gain more control and autonomy over their working lives.

Image: iStock

If you value great public services, protecting the planet and reducing inequality, please support NEF today.

Make a one-off donation

£5 £10 £25 £50 £100

Make a monthly donation

£3 £5 £10 £25 £100