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Redefining the work week — South Africa’s path towards a four-day future

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Marthinus van Staden is Associate Professor at the Wits University School of Law, where he teaches Jurisprudence and Labour Law. He obtained his doctorate in Labour Law from the University of Pretoria in 2018.

In a world where the relentless tick-tock of the clock dictates our daily lives, the traditional five-day work week is coming under increasing scrutiny.

As South Africa and the world grapple with the complexities of modern living, the time has come to question the entrenched five-day work week norm. Is it still serving our society’s best interests or has it become a stifling framework, out of step with contemporary needs and technological advancements?

The concept of a five-day work week, a product of Industrial Revolution norms, has been a standard fixture. Its genesis can be traced to the early 20th century when labour movements worldwide, including in South Africa, campaigned vigorously for reduced working hours. The aim was to create a harmonious balance between work and leisure, ensuring workers had sufficient time for rest, family engagement and personal pursuits.

The transition to a five-day work week was significantly influenced by the sweeping changes in industrial and economic spheres. During the nascent stages of industrialisation, the norm was often gruelling work schedules spanning six to seven days a week.

However, as economies matured and labour laws became more sophisticated, there was a gradual reduction in working hours. South Africa’s labour legislation, reflecting both international trends and internal labour dynamics, has been instrumental in sculpting the current work week structure.

Social considerations also played a pivotal role in the adoption of the five-day work week. This structure fosters a unified societal schedule, promoting family cohesion, leisure activities and the observance of cultural and religious practices. Weekends, typically encompassing Saturday and Sunday, resonate with traditional days of rest in numerous cultures, including South Africa’s diverse society.

A critical challenge remains: In South Africa, many workers do not enjoy decent work conditions and the loss of a day’s wage is not a viable option for many.

As South Africa assimilated into the global economic fabric, it embraced the five-day work week paradigm prevalent in other nations, a move that has streamlined international business and commerce dealings.

In South Africa, section 9 of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act 75 of 1997 (BCEA) regulates working hours and prescribes that a work week cannot exceed 45 hours. If an employee works five days or fewer in a week, the employee may only work nine hours in any day. If an employee works more than five days in a week, the employee may only work eight hours in any day.

An employee may only work overtime under strict circumstances (section 11 of the BCEA). Provided that a written agreement has been entered into, employees may work 12 hours per day without receiving overtime. These agreements may, however, not require or permit an employee to work more than 45 hours in any week, more than 10 hours overtime in any week, or on more than five days in any week.

These legislative provisions reflect both the influence of international labour standards and the country’s own social and economic policies. Importantly, the BCEA only provides South African employees with a minimum floor of protection. As such, these provisions therefore do not prohibit any organisation from implementing a four-day work week.

A groundbreaking report by South Africa’s 4-Day Week Pilot Programme, conducted in November 2023, stands as a testament to the feasibility and benefits of a reduced work week. This pioneering initiative in a developing-country context witnessed participating companies experiencing remarkable successes.

Read more in Daily Maverick: The pros and cons of the four-day work week

The study revealed significant improvements in employee well-being, stress reduction and enhancements in work-life balance. Moreover, there was a notable uptick in company revenue (a 10.5% average increase), performance and productivity, coupled with decreased resignation rates and absenteeism.

Notably, 57% of participants reported a decrease in work stress, and 58% experienced an increase in creativity at work. Moreover, the trial resulted in lifestyle changes, with more than half of the participants increasing leisure travel, and a reported increase in exercise frequency for 35% of them.

Despite the apparent benefits, the likelihood of legislative enforcement of a four-day work week in the near future seems remote.

Qualitative insights reveal that implementing the four-day week required leadership and commitment, with organisations adopting diverse models to maintain operations. It also led to changes in management style and leadership, emphasising delegation, coaching and strategic thinking. The pilot programme’s success in South Africa demonstrates its potential benefits in diverse economic contexts, offering insights for future initiatives globally.

These findings underscore the need to re-evaluate traditional work structures in the face of technological advancements and the rise of knowledge-based industries. The argument posits that a shorter work week could lead to more rested, focused and contented employees, potentially boosting productivity during working hours. The changing societal values, emphasising mental health and well-being, further support this re-evaluation.

Despite the apparent benefits, the likelihood of legislative enforcement of a four-day work week in the near future seems remote. The viability and success of this model varies significantly across industries and job roles, necessitating a tailored implementation approach. While some companies might adopt this model as a competitive strategy to attract talent, the BCEA does not pose an obstacle to this transition.

However, a critical challenge remains: In South Africa, many workers do not enjoy decent work conditions and the loss of a day’s wage is not a viable option for many. Without legislative measures to redefine employment conditions, such as adjusting the minimum wage to account for a four-day work week, the protection for numerous workers remains precarious.

Moreover, the absence of legislative intervention risks widening the gap between those who can afford or are permitted to work a shorter week and those who cannot.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Zoom signals the end of an era for the work-from-home phenomenon

In conclusion, while the five-day work week is not an immutable structure, vigilance is required to ensure the equitable implementation of a four-day work week in South Africa. It is essential that this evolution does not exacerbate the divide between workers in favourable conditions and those in less-fortunate circumstances.

The journey towards a more balanced work-life paradigm is ongoing and its success hinges on a careful, inclusive approach that considers the diverse needs and realities of the South African workforce. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Anne Gaisford says:

    And what about daylight saving during summer, especially for the north east coast where it is fully light by 4am and the evenings are short…sunset at 7 and dark by 7.30?

  • ARTHUR WALLER says:

    This is an interesting academic concept which could only work with certain types of employment. The work from home model was implemented enthusiastically but later found to have many disadvantages.
    Thankfully it seems that these ideas are unlikely to be legislated. We have enough government involvement in the economy. Employers who like the idea are free to restructure their working hours if it suites their business model and the employees agree. This situation is how it works now: Some companies work five and a half days, others five days and many four and a half days.

  • Geoff Krige says:

    Any change in this direction risks further polarisation of society. The excessive income gap between executives and the lowest paid workers, with middle management and professional staff somewhere in the middle, is already an acknowledged risk to social stability. The higher paid categories already demand that most lower paid categories are available 24/7 to cater to their desires (i.e. restaurant workers, shopping mall workers, transport workers, municipal maintenance and waste workers etc). If those higher paid categories now start pushing for shorter working hours with even more leisure time it can only result in increasing risks to social stability, with reducing opportunities for social cohesion.

  • Anthony Kearley says:

    Due to poor education, most of our labour force are unable to contribute sufficient value per hour (and therefore command the high wage attached thereto) as to make a four day week viable. The thing that keeps labour rates low is not legislation, it’s primarily education… that being the case, a four day week is a luxury most South Africans cannot afford.

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