THE NEW YORK TIMES: Greece passes law approving six-day working week

Niki Kitsantonis and Amelia Nierenberg
The New York Times
A law has come into effect in Greece to allow some companies to enforce a six-day working week.
A law has come into effect in Greece to allow some companies to enforce a six-day working week. Credit: SEN LI/Getty Images

As the rest of the world zigs toward a four-day workweek, Greece is opting to zag.

On Monday, a law came into effect that allows some companies to enforce a six-day workweek, a shift that is intended to prop up the country’s aging workforce and compensate strapped workers while respecting workers’ rights.

The law applies to private sector workers in certain industrial and manufacturing sectors, or to those who work in a business that operates continuous shifts 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with some exceptions. And it would be allowed only “in exceptional circumstances,” like an unexpectedly increased workload.

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Labor unions, which have long pushed for better working conditions and rights, have opposed the move. It has prompted a fierce debate and, when the bill was approved last year, protests. Greece already has the longest average workweek in the European Union, and it is not clear whether the extended workweek will bolster productivity.

The action in Greece stands in sharp contrast to much of the world. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in March pushed to reduce the standard workweek in the United States to 32 hours from 40 hours. Trials have been carried out in Britain, Iceland and New Zealand, at least in part as a response to the drastic shifts in work that were precipitated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Here’s what to know about Greece’s overtime measure.

Why do some think a six-day model could help?

Greece is dealing with a shortage of skilled labor, as are its peers in the European Union.

Conservative lawmakers in the country have billed the law as a way to provide more resources for employers, while providing additional income for workers.

The extra day, said Niki Kerameus, the labor and social insurance minister, will allow employers to address “urgent operational demands” that cannot be met given the current supply of workers, and will also put more money in the pockets of employees.

According to the law, workers get an extra 40% on their sixth day. This rises to 115% if that day falls on a Sunday or a public holiday. Some workers are already working more than 40 hours per week without getting paid for the extra time, and backers of the new measure say it affords them protections because employers would have to declare extra hours to the government.

The labor shortage has its roots partly in the financial crisis that began in 2009. Huge numbers of workers, most of them young Greeks, went abroad in search of better prospects, and some companies cut back on training and development, adding to the problem.

The boom that came after provided welcome financial relief, but it also left employers short-handed as the economy rebounded. Greece has struggled to deal with a huge influx of migrants in recent years, but it is now offering some more established migrants residency and work permits, as well as signing deals with other countries to bring in more workers for certain sectors like agriculture.

How have critics responded?

The Greek government has sought to downplay the implications of the move, stressing that it was an “an exceptional measure” that “does not affect in any way the established five-day working week,” Kerameus said.

But many, especially on the left, are furious.

Syriza, the leftist opposition party, denounced what it called “a return to working conditions of the 19th century that puts the country to shame.”

Nikos Fotopoulos, the general secretary of Greece’s private sector labor union, excoriated the measure in an open letter to Kerameus, the labor minister, calling the government “the most barbaric, most anti-worker government ever.”

Nearly 1 in 5 Greek adults were at risk of poverty last year, according to the research institute of Greece’s private sector workers’ union, and Fotopoulos said the government’s argument that workers can forgo the extra day did not hold up.

“Which worker, with the unemployment and poverty we have, would dare to say no to unchecked employers who you’ve allowed to treat workers like their slaves?” Fotopoulos wrote.

What’s the case for a four-day workweek?

Supporters of a four-day workweek say it could have significant benefits for employers and employees.

The logic? Fewer hours at the office should mean that the time there should be more productive. Workers, according to the theory, will have more energy and incentive to power through the 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. need-a-snack lull, or other periods when fatigue sets in and their minds begin to drift.

“When people work less, they tend to work smarter,” said Dale Whelehan, CEO of 4 Day Week Global, a nonprofit group. “As a result, they cut out unproductive time within their work and are able to get more done in less time.”

The evidence is still emerging, but a British trial run — conducted by Whelehan’s group — seemed to have favourable results. In a survey about halfway through the study, which took place in 2022, most of the companies reported no loss of productivity during the trial.

How does the productivity argument play out in Greece?

Greece had the longest average workweek in the European Union last year. Working-age people spent an average of 39.8 hours at their jobs, compared with the bloc’s average of 36.1 hours.

So while Greece is looking to extend the workweek in certain cases, backers of the four-day workweek like to emphasize that less can sometimes be more when it comes to productivity.

And Greece’s productivity has long been lower than the European Union’s average. Data from Eurostat, the bloc’s statistics agency, shows that Greek productivity per working hour was 30% lower than the bloc’s average last year.

“It offers an incentive to workers who want to boost their salary — while also increasing fair play by employers,” said Emmanouil Savoidakis, a lawyer based in Athens, who said some of his clients in manufacturing have already expressed interest. “Anyone who wants to boost production has to do it subject to certain rules and pay the overtime.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

© 2024 The New York Times Company

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