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     Volume 12 |Issue 06| February 08, 2013 |


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The Shorter Working Week Controversy

Shah Husain Imam


The West African state Gambia with its mainly Muslim population came dramatically into news by starting a four-day week for public sector workers from February 1. Its rather 'eccentric' President Yahya Jammeh has ordered Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays as non-working days. The citizens will get more time to pray, socialise and tend to fields.

The daily hours are between 8:00am and 6:00pm replacing the five-day work schedule at 8:00am to 4:00pm. Thus the employees will have to still work 40 hours per week.

Ten-hour per day work engagement maybe disruptive and dreary, say the critics adding that productivity might decline. The main focus being on longish free time, it might promote laziness intruding into the working days of ten hours at a stretch. How long would be a lunch or prayer break in the daily 10-hour grind has not been spelled out.

The country profile is interesting; its beaches have made it a popular tourist destination. Agriculture, in particular peanut exports, are mainstay of Gambia's economy. The President may have taken a smart decision: With its tiny population of 1.8 million devoting more time to farming, growing food and getting wealthy from tourist revenues, it makes sense.

The four-day working week is popular in Netherlands.

At any rate, Gambia's decision has whipped up an old controversy over shorter working weeks versus the longer ones. But it is notional because the 40 working hours per week remain the standard norm.

In Bangladesh, the government employees keep to 9:00am-5:00pm schedule with a lunch break of half an hour inclusive of prayer time.

Remarkably, the French, Japanese and Chinese are known for a longer lunch break, with a nap.

In the case of Gambia, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays being non-working days, this effectively shuts out four days of communication with the western world where Sunday is also closed. In Bangladesh though, we are short of three working days with the west, a point that business community stressed with an element of dismay when the two-day weekend had been announced.

If you ask any government official, he would privately admit that what gets done at the end of the day could have been delivered in a much shorter time. In other words, they are apt to drift away from official moorings either through force of habit or joining the tide or pandering to tadbir for self and others. Once somebody is ensconced in a position, the incumbent, irrespective of size of responsibility, tends to enjoy an immunity to discipline or a rigid timetable.

Given our work culture, some officials tend to attend office late and leave early although they are apt to point out that sometimes they also have had to stay longer in office. A two-day weekend is also supposed to have given leeway to resume work well into noontime the following day if the official had been out of town.

Economist John Maynard in 1930 'envisaged we would be working a 15-hour week by the beginning of 21st century, believing that it would be enough to suit our material needs.' He is yet to be proved right.

The proponents of shorter working weeks base their advocacy on the premise that with a radical transformation in technology, already in place, we could divide official work between home and workplace. At least, the working hours can be flexible which in a measure print and electronic journalists enjoy with their shifting duties.

In stressful professions, an element of flexibility in working hours is a prerequisite to a productive working environment, especially where creativity in a hurry is a functional necessity.

In any case, just as enhancement of quality of life is important so is that of quality output.


The writer is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.



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