Iceland wins 36 hour week and Australia can too

Contributed by Joe Montero

Iceland has won a 36 hour working week and no reduction in wages. Support for shorter working hours gained public support after the global Financial crisis of 2008. Iceland suffered more than most other countries and the exposed nation’s banking system collapsed. But it was the ordinary Icelanders who bore the brunt.

Government policy took money from community services. They began to collapse. Jobs were hit. Poverty increased.

Iceland’s unions, led by the Federation of State and Municipal Employees (BSRB) federation started a campaign to reduce hours of work across the country.

Sonja Ýr Þorbergsdóttir, Chairperson of the BSRB explains, “We learned something from the shock of the economic crisis, and we wanted to put our families and our private lives first. We wanted this demand higher on the list.

Sonja Ýr Þorbergsdóttir chair of the BSRB

“For some unions, the shorter week was the first demand and wages were number two.”

Shorter hours became a means to create more jobs and therefore be a stimulus to the economy. They are also about fairness in sharing the burden.

Initially a few workplaces won the shorter hours. By 2020, the campaign involving a cross-section of unions and wider the community had gathered pace. The unions, with 80 percent of workers their members, began to organise for a massive strike.

Workers march for a shorter working week in Iceland

The arrival of covid-19 forced the strike to be called off. However, the force of public opinion convinced the government to expand existing trial programs and make them permanent. Over the year since, the result has been massively successful. Levels of stress  have reduced, according to a report just released. The report found that “productivity and service provision remained the same or improved across the majority of trial workplaces.”

One of the trials involved the Reykjavík City Council, and the national government eventually included more than 2,500 workers, which amounts to about 1% of Iceland’s working population.

It is now only a matter of time before  the whole workforce enjoys a 36 hour week, and those working unhealthy rosters will have an even shorter working week. Up to 86 percent of Iceland’s workforce have either moved to shorter hours for the same pay or will gain the right to.

According to the union leader, the change was met with resistance from those who wanted to keep it as it was.

Hannes G. Sigurðsson, the assistant managing director of Business Iceland called it “economic terrorism.”

Some of the unions did not want to support the campaign at the beginning. This did not stop it, and most were eventually won over.

The BSRB leader said that there were two ingredients to the victory. Shorter hours were made the priority and widespread consultation took place.

, “I think it was critical for us to make it a priority. Unions are constantly battling a lot of things, and new challenges seem to come up daily, but you have to decide that we are always going to discuss this. It came from the members, so we always got our strength from them,” she said.

“In order for it to work, it’s critical for it to be a discussion within the workplace where everyone can participate. It’s great to have a new idea, but when everyone is involved, it shares the responsibility to make it work.

“The biggest thing you have to do is rethink the whole working week, not just its length. You have to make the decision with the workers involved, because they know their jobs best and how to use your working time better.”

The situation is not too different in Australia. Insecure work has become a plague. Fighting for decent jobs is a priority need. The United Workers Union (UWU) has taken a lead in fighting for this, and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) is fighting for local manufacturing. The Australian Nursing and Midwives Federation (ANMF) is fighting or better staffing ratios and healthier rosters, while the Australian education Union (AEU) is fighting over working hours, class sizes, and workload.

These are only some examples of what the union movement and its members are doing in Australia. Discussion on a shorter working week has begun. A submission for a four day week has been put to the Inquiry into Economic Equity For Victorian Women.

This is not only a matter for the unions. For starters, many of those in insecure work are not currently union members. A considerable portion of the available workforce, many more than admitted in the government’s statistics, is out of work. Even more are underemployed.  

A reduction in working hours could create more jobs in Australia. This depends on what is done to push down insecure work and ensure that incomes are maintained. This must be looked at as a package.

No doubt employer groups, and their political hacks will oppose any of these changes and claim that it will ruin the economy. The point is, they are the ones who have just about ruined the economy by cutting away at its foundations. An alternative approach is necessary.

1 Comment on "Iceland wins 36 hour week and Australia can too"

  1. Australia already has a 36 hour week, check out the majority of CFMEU ebas, anything after that is overtime

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