The pandemic has deeply impacted labour in Canada, causing an increased amount of burnout, but also making workers more comfortable confronting their bosses and quitting their jobs. We’ve collectively learned that work won’t love us back.
As such, it should come as no surprise that the idea of a four-day work week has become increasingly popular and possible in Canada. For example, both the Ontario Liberals and NDP have included four-day work week policies in their platforms for the upcoming election in the province.
But not all four-day work week policies are equal, and the details matter. So, first, let’s go over what a four-day work week should look like. After that, we’ll explore the Liberal and NDP platforms, and see how they measure up.
Outlining A Proper Four-Day Work Week
As it stands, the rhetoric dominating conversations in Canada about the four-day work week focuses on the idea that it will be an asset for businesses. The sort of proponents for the idea featured in corporate media argue that it will allow companies to better recruit employees, get more productivity from them and keep them around longer. So, the idea is framed as a way for businesses to reduce overhead and gain trust, leading to more profitable companies. Little attention is given to those who stand to benefit the most from the policy: workers.
Four-day work week policies and discussions surrounding them need to decentre work and corporations and recentre workers. That’s because the four-day work week is fundamentally a right for workers, and more specifically a right to work less. It’s a timely amendment to hard-won workers’ rights from the past century, such as the five-day work week and the nine-hour and then eight-hour work day.
The fight for a four-day work week is as socially relevant and politically capacious as the fight for a living wage or basic income. A living wage sets a price floor for our labour time so that we can survive in increasingly expensive and exclusionary cities. But a four-day work week provides ownership over our labour time so that we can reimagine more culturally vibrant and socially equitable cities. Community engagement, political participation and self-care all take time, which the five-day work week doesn’t afford us equally.
Protections over work — fair compensation, appropriate training and safe working conditions — are vitally important. But, as Kathi Weeks argues in her seminal text, The Problem with Work, so is access to care and leisure: playing with your children, talking to your neighbours, using public parks and libraries, watching every episode of Twin Peaks back to back, etc.
With this in mind, let’s take a look at the specifics of the Ontario Liberal and NDP proposals for four-day work weeks.
The Liberal Four-Day Work Week
In October, Ontario Liberal Party Leader Steven Del Duca announced the party’s plans for a four-day work week. He promised that if elected, the Liberals would explore a pilot program, allowing workers to opt into 10-hour workdays over a four-day work week. In this project, all workers would put in 40 hours a week, and the only difference would be the amount of days they’re spread over.
Del Duca stated that the pilot program is ultimately about gathering facts, not implementing policy, adding that the Liberal Party “believes in science, expertise and evidence-based decision-making, and so I want us to gather the facts in an open and transparent way.” But somehow, the Liberals miss key facts. None of the case studies that Del Duca cited in his announcement (in New Zealand, Japan, Iceland and Spain) use the model he’s proposing. Rather, these countries’ pilot programs used a 32-hour work week, meaning workers receive major increases in relative pay and time off.
The Liberals also miss the point of what a four-day work week should be. In his announcement, Del Duca made statements such as: “Let me be clear, improving the way we work does not mean that people don’t want to work hard.” He closed the announcement by saying, “People want the chance to work hard and work meaningfully, without their job having a brutally negative impact on families, mental health, the environment and quality of life.” (Emphasis mine.) “Brutally negative impact” is an exceptionally low bar for a four-day work week to aim to cross.
As a whole, the Liberal Party policy is confusing and uninspiring.
The NDP Four-Day Work Week
The four-day work week policy from the NDP was introduced by MPP Bhutila Karpoche in December through Bill 70. If elected, the NDP has promised to enact the Bill, which first establishes a commission to develop recommendations and then implements a one-year pilot project “for a section of the province’s workers.”
The NDP policy is both better and worse than the Liberal one, in that there’s simply less there at this point. But given their recent record at the provincial and federal levels, their policy will likely resemble the Liberal one anyway. And, although more muted, Karpoche uses the same tropes as Del Duca.
This is a useful opportunity to discuss two oversights in most four-day work week policies in general: how workers will access the benefits, and whether all workers will benefit equally.
In terms of access, four-day work week models typically have workers negotiating with their employers individually. In countries with reasonably successful four-day work week policies, this has been effective because there are already strong pro-worker cultures and legislation. Meanwhile, in Ontario, Premier Doug Ford’s government has rolled back hard-won workers’ rights since coming into power in 2018, such as the planned minimum wage increase and equity pay for part-time and casual workers.
Moreover, like work from home policies, the four-day work week proposals (including the NDP’s, judging by the details provided) largely benefit white-collar workers with stable salaries. Blue-collar workers, meanwhile, are largely ignored because the idea of the four-day work week increasing productivity doesn’t apply to them.
Of course, even if the four-day work week is implemented, it won’t solve all problems. An effective four-day work week policy needs to be situated within a robust ecosystem of social policies, from a living wage to affordable childcare. This is particularly important for women, who experienced disproportionate increases in childcare responsibilities throughout the pandemic. Just because we’re not at work does not mean we’re working less.
Still, the four-day work week is a necessary step forward. It helps give workers the right to do nothing in particular, and anything we want. These activities are meaningful in and of themselves, not necessarily because they make us more productive workers or agreeable subordinates.
Both the Liberals and the NDP fail to provide a clear vision or a cogent politics behind their four-day work week policies. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fight for a four-day work week ourselves.