Ireland’s deficit for 2020 is now projected to be more than €30 billion as the cost of the global pandemic begins to emerge.
With phrases like “the new normal”, “unprecedented times” and “global economic crisis” littering the political landscape, one might be forgiven for thinking it is not a prudent time to start a discussion around reducing the working week to four days, but I would not agree.
In a month when the EU Commission has issued guidance to Ireland that suggests that fixing inequality will lead to economic recovery in a more timely fashion, now is the time to listen to those of us calling for radical action on how we utilise our workforce. We owe it to families to explore this opportunity.
A 2016 Eurostat study showed that Irish employees work 2.7 weeks more per annum than our European peers, while those other EU countries maintained similar if not higher levels of production. It can be done.
Measuring production within varying workforces is not an easy task, and I accept that the concept of a four-day week cannot happen unless we bring everyone into the conversation. Employers, unions and government all have relatively high stakes in ensuring current levels of pay and productivity remain the same.
Such a coalition is in its infancy through the work of Four Day Week Ireland (4DWI) with a plethora of supporting academic research showing the benefits to employers, workers, women and the environment.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s comments about positing New Zealand’s economy towards this fresh approach set off a new conversation recently, one which an innovative and fresh-thinking Ireland should explore.
Since my election to Kildare County Council, I have become acutely aware of the stresses to which families find themselves exposed in their efforts to find some form of work-life balance.
In building a strong economy after the collapse of the financial markets, we have also been building a generation of burnt-out families. Commuters tell me that the only alone time they have is in the car on their morning journey, with little or no opportunities in the evening to focus on their own well-being, not to mention that of their children.
In 2018 the OECD projected that issues such as anxiety and depression were leading to as much as a 3 per cent reduction of GDP in Ireland. None of this is new. We have become accustomed to this fault within our capitalist society. What is new, however, is our newfound breathing space to protect the human capital that makes up our economy.
Environmental benefits are patently obvious and must be placed at the forefront of every decision taken by every government from here on in. The move to a reduced working week, combined with an increase in remote working, would allow for a reduction in carbon emissions of up to 20 per cent through reduced traffic and less energy consumption in commercial premises.
A four-day working week is not the panacea to the impending fiscal collapse, but it may very well be part of the solution. With more opportunities to avail of domestic tourism and a very bleak external travel market predicted for the next 18 months, we could be enjoying more weekends on staycations while providing a real boon to the Irish domestic market.
This pandemic has forced us to stop and reimagine how we define success and growth. As other countries start to prioritise the well-being of their citizens over everything else, surely we owe it to ourselves to examine any proposal that takes some stress out of 21st-century living.
Chris Pender is a Social Democrats councillor based in Newbridge, Co Kildare