Beyond COVID-19: How the manufacturing industry should prepare
Mansi Kabra

Mansi Kabra

May 01st, 2019 5 min read

Why Shorter Work Weeks?

What does May Day mean to you?

For us, a labor innovation start-up, it is both a celebration of the many victories of the labor movement and a subtle reminder of the unresolved issues. This May, coincidentally enough, we are beginning an experiment to address an issue that has roots in the May Day movement.

At the entrance to an unlikely approach, there is usually nothing to indicate that it is worth exploring, and yet it may lead to something useful for everybody.

May Day or International Workers’ Day is a reminder of this.

During the 18th century, at the peak of the Industrial Revolution, men and women around the world were being plagued by poor working conditions and long working hours. Rallies were spreading all across the United States of America like wildfire. United, they demanded an eight-hour workday.

Eventually, in 1885, the American Federation of Labor passed a resolution calling for the adoption of the eight-hour workday, effective from May 1, 1886, meeting the demand of workers. Since then, many countries worldwide celebrate May 1st as the International Workers’ Day.

This paved the way for a new perspective to work and labor, rooted in respect and humility.

Another landmark moment in this domain took place just a century ago. The conventional thinking in the automobile business, at the time, dictated “bring people to work.” Henry Ford, a businessman, reversed this to “bring work to people” by pioneering the modern day assembly line. He also initiated the 5-day 40-hour work week at his company, giving workers two — instead of one — days off weekly. His workforce was happier and more productive.

May day brought shorter working hours, and Ford introduced a shorter work week — except interestingly Ford was an employer, and the protesters in 1886, all workers.

The success of Ford as a company is only a humble indicator of the success of its revolutionary ideas, which were risky at the time but proved worth the risk later on. Though not new or untested, not many thought-leaders learned from his idea of giving workers a shorter work week.

We wonder why.

Is it missing some kind of validation or is the idea of “having workers work less to work more” a bit counterintuitive, almost too good to be true?

We don’t know. But we want to find out.

In the spirit of May Day, let us invite you to our thinking behind an “alternative” work schedule strategy, how we plan to learn and make a business case out of it, and why we think we can’t afford to let this idea go.

An alternative work schedule.

Time is as important for a worker, as for anyone else. However, most garment firms in India have a 6-day work week policy which leaves workers with only one day of rest and leisure. What if, inspired by Mr. Ford, we changed this to a 5-day work week, giving workers Sat-Sun off, allowing them to better balance their work-life responsibilities or spend more time with family?

Being a research organization we set out to explore this possibility. We asked workers working at a big garment firm, what would they do if they got Saturdays off. Their responses summed up their priorities. A majority said they would spend time with family or friends and take care of their children. Many said they would use this time to relax or do household chores. Only a few said they’d look for additional pay.

Garment firms are characterized by a predominantly female labor force. In this respect, a shorter workweek could not only give existing female workers time to better achieve a work-life balance but also incentivize those prospective women to join the workforce, who are left at the cusp of time constraints.

The question still lingers — how would giving Saturdays off affect business? Would this affect how refreshed and happy workers feel at work the next day? And would this change then reflect in productivity on Mondays, or perhaps throughout the week? Could workers become more productive throughout the week just by getting a longer break?

Perhaps, you’ll have an answer to this question if you think of any of the times your happiness drove your productivity.

Needless to say, neither is this idea’s implementation (in the context of the garment industry) free of logistical challenges (as we learned by talking to people on the ground) nor is the effort to study and evaluate this program from a business perspective, an easy task. But we want to try.

If the satisfaction derived from two days of a weekend could drive an increase in productivity enough to meet in 5 days the same production targets that were being met in 6 days — is that not reason enough for firms to adopt this approach? Add to this the cost savings of not running a factory.

In transit.

Inertia is natural, especially when the stakes are high.

What if such an idea is implemented, and it fails miserably — how will the firm possibly shift the work timings back to a 6-day work week without losing workers?

Maybe it’s wise to try this idea in phases. Consider this, keeping the bigger picture in mind -

Initially, workers work a little more each day Monday — Friday and get the Saturday off i.e. a 5day 45-hour work week so as not to hamper production — they’d still be working fewer hours in the week (45 hours vs 48 hours).

This can be followed up with a 5-day 40-hour work week, accompanied by constant monitoring and evaluation, in order to record effects on productivity to convince firms for such a change. This is the plan.

This May, our partner garment firm will be implementing this new work schedule and we, at GBL, will be evaluating its holistic effects on worker wellbeing and productivity.

Paradigm shifts are not brought about by following commensurate wisdom, but by questioning, challenging and reinventing it.

We want to bring one such shift by producing solid evidence to guide decision making in this work-domain. We hope to make 5-day 40-hour work week the norm for workers everywhere, not conditional on the color of their collars.

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