The 4-day work week is not for South Africa: expert

 ·11 May 2024

Although the first 4-day workweek pilot in South Africa showed some positives, several experts say the model simply won’t work for the majority of industries, with only a small wealthy group afforded the luxury of picking such a work model.

The results of the first 4-day workweek pilot in South Africa, which started on 1 March 2023, showed the first-ever pilot of the 4-day week in a developing country—and the first in Africa—has shown huge benefits for both employees and employers.

The model prescribes 100% of the pay for 80% of the time in exchange for a commitment to delivering 100% of the output. 28 South African businesses and one Botswanan business participated in this first pilot.

According to the results, some of the positives that came from the South African pilot included an increase in company revenue, 49% reported an increase in productivity, participants experienced a decrease in work stress, and the number of sick and personal days taken by employees also decreased.

A small group of the wealthy

Despite the positive outcomes, some experts, including the development economist Dieter von Fintel from Stellenbosch University, noted that it only works well for developed countries and those in South Africa who are afforded payscales far higher than the average minimum wage worker.

“The average worker in a rich country can afford to work less but still be paid a good salary at the end of the month – and the evidence suggests that productivity is not necessarily negatively affected,” said Von Fintel.

“In South Africa, the average (less well-paid) worker is unlikely to earn enough on a shorter work week to make ends meet without also implementing large increases in hourly wages.

“When workers earn a high enough wage per hour, the scenario changes significantly, and they can start thinking about working less but still maintaining a liveable total take-home pay package in a month,” said Von Fintel.

Affordability is not a question here, but working fewer hours is a luxury that these workers can choose.

Essentially, most wealthier workers in South Africa and the average workers in developed countries have moved to this scenario.

This is why rich countries strongly consider a 4-day work week.

The average worker in a rich country can afford to work less but still be paid a good salary at the end of the month, and the evidence suggests that productivity is not necessarily negatively affected.

Only employers in well-paid sectors are also discussing a four-day workweek in South Africa. Von Fintel said that the 4-day workweek should be seen as a discussion for the small group of the wealthy.

Other experts from the law firm Cliffe Dekker Hofmyer, as well as the Department of Employment and Labour, tend to agree with Von Fintel’s perspective.

“It is important to recognise that there is a clear absence of businesses from other sectors, such as mining, agriculture and manufacturing, which together constitute some of the largest employers in South Africa. The efficacy of a 4-day workweek in these industries is uncertain.”

“In these sectors, working hours also tend to be highly regulated through main collective agreements and sectoral determinations, with salaries sometimes directly linked to hours worked,” said Cliffe Dekker Hofmyer.

This is similar to Von Fintel’s argument that South Africa’s minimum wage workers across the country’s biggest industries may not be able to afford to work fewer hours.

This was also the content of the labour department, which said the challenge of such a model lies largely in its potential implementation and potential amendments to the Wage Bill, more so in highly unionised environments where negotiations on basic conditions of employment are particularly complex.

The labour department, Cliffe Dekker Hofmyer, and Von Fintel agree that much more research needs to be done on industry-wide content but remain sceptical of its feasibility in South Africa, given the challenges.

Read: 6 ‘shocks’ that cost South Africa R850 billion

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