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Workaholic Asia is trying out the four-day work week

Reuters/Peter Nicholls
FILE PHOTO: Workers walk in the city of London, Britain, September 21, 2018. Picture taken September 21, 2018. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls/File Photo

Asian countries are known for a work culture that embraces long working hours. South Korea consistently ranks as one of the world’s highest in average working hours, China celebrates its so-called “996″ schedule (9 am to 9 pm, six days a week), and Japan has long grappled with karoshi, or death from overwork.

Now Asia is experimenting with a shortened work week.

Unilever, the multinational consumer conglomerate, announced today that it will begin a year-long trial of a four-day work week for its New Zealand-based staff starting this month, with no reduction in pay. The move comes after New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern suggested in May that a four-day work week could be a way to boost tourism and rebuild the economy after the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the Philippines today began a four-day work week for all court officials and employees, with all courts nationwide now opening four days a week, 10 hours a day. Government offices had already cut the work week to four days in March, as part of authorities’ response to Covid-19. There’s also a proposed bill working its way through the legislature that would cap the work week at 35 hours for the private sector.

In China, the pandemic has also precipitated a shift to shorter working hours. Since March, several provinces have adopted the 4.5-day week in the hopes of boosting post-pandemic consumption to restart the economy. The idea isn’t entirely new, and has been floated by authorities since at least 2015, when the State Council—China’s cabinet—began encouraging two-and-a-half-day weekends in 2015 as a way to boost leisure spending.

But the extra free time may not always be exactly free: one city in Hubei province is giving employees an extra half-day off in a pilot scheme, but the local government has suggested (link in Chinese) that the freed-up Friday afternoon be used for “patriotic education,” or other organized activities like tours around the city.

Job listings, too, offer clues on the changing length of the work week. In the US, for example, the share of job postings offering a four-day week has gone up since the pandemic. The arrangement helps employees deal with the the demands of childcare as schools and daycare centers have shut, while giving firms leeway to cut costs without resorting to layoffs.

With or without a shortened work week, the disruption brought about by the pandemic has caused losses in working hours across the world. According to the latest numbers (pdf) from the International Labor Organization, a UN agency, the world lost an average of 12 percent of total working hours in the third quarter, with the Americas being the most affected region.

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