Over recent weeks, as the UK began to stagger out of lockdown, the true realisation of the economic impact of COVID-19 has hit home for many, not least the representatives of big business and the government. Alongside this, many workers will be fearing for their jobs as news of company closures and mass lay-offs have become an almost daily occurrence in the press. This comes on top of the many people who lost their jobs just before or during lockdown.
Leaders of industry, top civil servants and government ministers also seem to be in the news daily, putting forward what they believe to be the best path to avoid wholescale job losses over the next period.
Last week the so-called left-wing think-tank Autonomy produced a report calling for a four-day working week as a strategy to save jobs and improve productivity and workers’ health. The report calls for workers to have their hours shortened by around 80%, or a full day from a five-day week, whilst maintaining 100% of their salaries. Critically though, it insists that it is the government that should step-in to top-up wages, thus staving off redundancies by subsidising private companies to reduce working hours.
Burden of long hours for workers
For many working people, the burden of long hours can amount to stressful lives and so the proposal of shortening their working week by a whole day whilst not losing out on pay will no doubt be attractive. The think-tank also claims that if people have more time off work, they have more time to spend money and thus invest back into the economy. This does not take into account that many were already struggling financially before lockdown, and the impact for many of spending weeks and months on 80% furlough pay means that in reality many workers having an amount of disposable income to spend on their day off is probably quite optimistic!
The plans have been given the backing of both John McDonnell and 2020 Labour leadership hopeful Clive Lewis. Unite’s Assistant General Secretary, Howard Beckett, also came out in support calling on the Labour Party to support this ‘unequivocally’, though so far shadow chancellor Anneliese Dodds has remained quiet on the matter.
Who will pay?
The report suggests that it would cost the government around £3.8billion to make up the wages in the arts and entertainment sector, rising to around £22billion when the hospitality, tourism and retail industries are included. A key issue comes from how this will be paid back. Many news outlets are suggesting that higher taxation would be needed to allow the government to cover these costs, while UK Investor Magazine states that it believes that the plans would make certain a fresh round of austerity in the October budget. This is also not designed to be a long-term change in the way we work, as the scheme would see state subsidies reduced back down to zero over five years.
The initiative could work as a temporary buffer for businesses to try to recover from the effects of the pandemic, with nothing in place to protect workers from being laid off or having their working hours put back up in the not-to-distant future.
The plans also do not explain how people who work on precarious zero-hours contracts or those who are paid hourly would have their pay worked out or their hours reduced. There is no mention of a necessary increase in rates of pay, after a decade of lost wages due to austerity measures and pay caps. It also does not mention what would be done to defend sick pay and holiday entitlement.
Work under socialism
As socialists we would support a reduction in the working week with no loss of pay. However, we believe that this should be done in the interests of the workers and not simply as a measure to stop companies using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to get rid of workers to protect their profits. Instead of companies receiving government hand-outs, which workers would pay back at a later date via further austerity, companies threatening to make redundancies and closures should be forced to open their books, to show the true financial situation of the business. Those that proceed to close should be nationalised and brought under democratic workers’ control.
Capitalism is a system where mass-unemployment can go hand-in-hand with people holding two, three or even four low-paid jobs to try to make ends meet, whilst workers who are seen to be on decent, full-time contracts are often forced to take on overtime just to pay the bills. It is apparent that there is an imbalance in the way we work. Under a socialist, democratically planned economy, the work could be shared out. This would see the working week reduced, with no detriment to workers, but this would be a permanent change in the way we live our lives, and not just a temporary measure used by capitalism as it tries to save itself.