South Africa’s four-day workweek trial: the good and the bad

21 February 2024 135
From March to August 2023, South Africa conducted the first African four-day workweek experiment involving several pilot companies trialling to assess the pros and cons of such a move in a South African context. Although it’s far too early to make any conclusive findings, we share a few thoughts about the trial and its implications for South Africa.

With many countries around the globe, especially after the Covid-19 pandemic, showing an interest in and trialling a four-day workweek and with some countries already having moved to a four-day workweek, it is understandable that the debate and consideration of a four-day workweek have spilled over to South Africa with the first four-day work trial that took place from March to August 2023.

The purpose of the trial was for the companies involved in the trial to identify the pros and cons of businesses moving to a four-day work week. During the trial, employees were required to choose their preferred day off, with the provision that it should not interrupt the employer's operations.

Following the trial, results, although far from conclusive, yielded positive findings as participants recorded an improvement in the well-being of employees, increased productivity rates, new talent attraction and employee retention benefits. That said, despite these positive aspects, not everything that glitters is gold, as several challenges were also identified. 

For some sectors, the four-day work week may prove challenging, with sectors such as mining and construction requiring more hours in the week rather than less, reducing work hours will be impractical from a production perspective.

Additionally, the impact of the current load shedding crises in South Africa, which as yet has no end date in sight, is a major factor impacting company productivity with load shedding affecting existing operational hours. A four-day workweek would further exacerbate and complicate the logistics of managing productivity issues that follow load shedding.

Despite, a high percentage of the participants being satisfied with the results of the trial and considering the implementation of a four-day workweek beyond the trial, this may not happen without its share of consequences. Does a four-day workweek imply less pay in return for more time off? Can South Africans, already indebted to the hilt, afford the luxury of less pay for more personal time? Does it mean the same amount of work will now need to be done in four days as was usually done in five? Will companies be able to accommodate the same pay but more staff to make up for productivity issues? And what about the hidden management costs involved in appointing and having to manage more staff?

Let’s also remember the labour angle. Any change in an employee’s working hours or remuneration constitutes an essential condition of employment and any change thereto may in turn require amendments to collective agreements, employment contracts, and sectoral agreements which cannot be amended without meaningful prior consultations. Such changes may also not be uniform, as each industry will have to adopt working arrangements that meet their specific demands. 

In line with these concerns, the Department of Employment and Labour also voiced its views on the possible reduction of working hours without a salary reduction and called for more research to be conducted on industries that earn minimum wages, the majority of which pay their employees according to the hours worked.

To conclude. The trial yielded positive results and is a good starting point for discussing and considering more progressive work structures that prioritise employee well-being without compromising the business of employers. South Africa however, also has unique and complex labour environments and as such any affirmation that a four-day workweek is certain for South Africa may be quite premature.

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