Working time – let’s get it sorted for people, planet, and productivity…

There were many fascinating session at the one day of the Green Economics Institute conference that I was able to attend last week – and quite a few I couldn’t get to (organic growing of dates in Saudi Arabia, which the conference paper suggests is an entirely new idea, at least in modern times, would have been interesting!)

I was taken by Charles Secrett’s “masterclass” on green campaigning, particularly his stress on the need to be terribly careful about accessible language (“don’t talk about biodiversity, but about nature”, and his passionate argument that “we have less than a decade to turn around the political economy of the planet”.

But I was also taken by the session I attended given by Enrico Tezza, a senior ILO official originally from Italy, who argued that changes to the concept of working time management can be key to delivering on economic, social and environmental objectives. (He also reminded us that Keynes had thought that by the 1990s standard working time would be 15 hours a week, and noted that there had been some progress – in 1913 the average working hours were 2,600/person/year, but the most sophisticated Finnish flexitime was now on 1,400 hours.)

At the core of this theory is that “working time” should consider not just time spent in paid work, but also time needed for unpaid responsibilities, such as caring, also for education and skill development, and for leisure and retirement – and that at the heart of the policy should be “self-regulation”.

To quote his paper: “Educational systems, labour market institutions, social protection systems should support the re-organisation of working and non-working time over the life course and take the entire life as the basic framework for their policy.”

He acknowledged the potential trap of individualism in threatening workers’ rights (I thought of a seven-day a week sports editor on a small Australian newspaper I once knew who was proud of the fact he’d negotiated a pay-rise for signing away his life), and also highlighted the productivity trap of the long-hours culture.

To make this work, employers needed to decouple working time from their operating hours he said, focus on upskilling their workers, and be prepared to focus on effective productivity, not presenteeism.

The aim overall is decent working time.

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