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INTERVIEW: 'A four-day work week will become more widespread in Germany'

Aaron Burnett
Aaron Burnett - [email protected]
INTERVIEW: 'A four-day work week will become more widespread in Germany'
Thousands of German companies have already instituted a four-day work week. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Hendrik Kuhlmann | Hendrik Kuhlmann

German politicians and unions are debating the merits of a four-day work week. But experts say many German companies aren’t waiting for politics to go ahead with a shorter week.

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Every day, Martin Gaedt says he sees 20 more companies in German-speaking countries switch to working a four-day work week.

The author of Vier Tage Woche or “Four-day Week” interviewed around 150 companies in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland says the arrangement has worked so well for the companies that are using it, that many simply aren’t waiting for laws or unions to force the change.

But just how widespread will the four-day work week become in Germany? Could it become a new normal?

“Definitely,” Gaedt told The Local’s Germany in Focus podcast. “Definitely. I mean there’s no topic more discussed in Germany right now than the four-day work week because it has so many advantages—and now politicians are jumping on this."

Gaedt predicted that 20,000 or even 30,000 German companies could be on a four-day work week by the end on the year—no matter how the political debate goes.

“I don’t think we need politics in this discussion because it’s a decision every company can already choose today,” Gaedt says. “There’s not one company with reduced productivity. Everybody who’s painting this dark image can’t even show one bad example.”

READ ALSO: PODCAST: Is Germany heading towards a four-day work week and how will cannabis clubs work?

As Gaedt suggests, German media has been abuzz recently with debate about whether the country’s workplaces should go to a four-day work week, since Social Democrat co-leader Saskia Esken spoke out in favour of the idea. Crucially though, Esken said workers in Germany should be working fewer hours but getting the same wages as they currently do working five days a week.

Saskia Esken, right, with her fellow SPD co-leader Lars Klingbeil. Esken is one of the German politicians most vocally advocating for a four-day work week in Germany, with workers taking home the same salary. (Photo by HANNIBAL HANSCHKE / POOL / AFP)

That idea has found favour with the German public, with 73 percent of respondents to a recent survey saying they would support a four-day week, provided they didn’t see a reduction in salary.

Some unions, most notably Germany’s largest, IG Metall, have already negotiated shorter work weeks for their workers in the past. In the 1990s, it negotiated a 35-hour work week for metalworkers to allow for better work-life balance. Since 2018, it’s advocated for a 28-hour work week for the same reasons. However, IG Metall proposed shorter worker hours go hand in hand with proportionately reduced salaries—as a way for employers to cut costs without axing jobs.

READ ALSO: Is a four-day working week possible in Germany?

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The four-day week model politicians like Esken and experts like Gaedt advocate doesn’t see salaries reduced.

Esken isn’t the first SPD politician to speak out in favour of a four-day work week. The Left Party currently advocates a 30-hour work week. But the centre-right Christian Democrats and liberal Free Democrats are particularly opposed.

“Reducing working hours and making work more expensive during a shortage of skilled workers will harm economic competitiveness,” the CDU’s deputy spokesperson in the Bundestag, Hermann Gröhe, told Tagesspiegel newspaper.

But Gaedt says reducing hours hasn’t led to a decrease in productivity amongst the companies he’s interviewed.

“It’s the same arguments we had 100 years ago when they changed from a seven-day workweek to a six-day workweek and the same discussion we had in the sixties when it changed from a six-day workweek to a five-day workweek. It’s always the same argument,” he says.

“The economy has never crashed. The opposite is correct. There are experts who say that every time we reduced the working hours, there was a huge amount of innovation.”

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Gaedt also says that politicians like Gröhe, who are concerned about Germany’s current shortage of skilled labour, should actually welcome the four-day work week. "None of these companies are having any trouble finding employees," he says, pointing to the example of a painting company that was struggling for staff, but went from four employees to 40 after putting in place a four-day work week.

Gaedt has plenty of company amongst experts as well. The head of the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW) Marcel Fratzscher argued in a recent guest column in Die Zeit that Germany should at least do a test phase of the four-day work week.

READ ALSO: Why Germany is debating a shorter working week

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Fratzscher argues that recent studies have pointed out the advantages reduced working hours can have for both companies and socially. He says workplaces that have instituted it tend to see large decreases in the number of sick days employees take. Workplaces with a four-day week also tend to find it much easier to retain employees, driving down recruiting costs.

Employee satisfaction is up and the time both men and women are devoting to children and household chores tends to be more equal.

Although Fratzscher argues there could be risks and there’s no shortage of debate in German media on the issue, Gaedt expects the four-day work week to become increasingly normal in Germany.

“Ask anyone who has experienced a four-day work week—they don’t want to go back,” he says. “The whole atmosphere in the company is better. The people are happier. The people are healthier.”

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