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Time, flexibility key for healthy, fair and balanced working life
Author: Mark Smith
Published: 04/05/2023

​International Workers' Day was observed on 1 May. In an opinion piece for Business Day, Prof Mark Smith, Director of Stellenbosch Business School, writes how issues of time and flexibility underpin the struggle for a healthy, fair and balanced working life.

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Mark Smith*

Unlike its position in relation to the International Criminal Court (ICC), South Africa's celebrations of International Workers' Day or Labour Day places it firmly with the rest of the international community who celebrate this 1st of May holiday. In fact, it is celebrated in over 150 countries, usually with a public holiday, along with some who use the first Monday of May.

The significance of this day is perhaps underlined in that there is no other non-religious public holiday celebrated in quite as many countries. And, although its origins date back to the nineteenth-century struggle for workers' rights, it nevertheless remains important for the challenges employers and employees face in modern South Africa and beyond.

International Workers' Day marks previous battles and victories for workers' rights across the world. Dating back to a mid-1850s labour dispute in Austria, over the course of the next century, the day became a rallying point for workers' rights, a day for protests across many countries, a significant day in the history of Communism, and often a public holiday. The exceptional position of the United States and Canada hinges on its association with worker power and its communist traditions and led the US to move Labor Day to the first Monday of September at the turn of the last century.

Time is at the heart of International Workers' Day. The origins of the celebration mark 1 May 1856 when Austrian machine workers downed tools in a claim for an 8-hour day. Subsequent major battles associated with the 1st of May involved claims for reduced working time in France, the United States, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. Indeed, the 1 May 1886 Haymarket Affair in the United States was a bloody dispute around working time reduction to an eight-hour day.

The fact that International Workers' Day is based around conflict is perhaps no surprise. The interests of workers and employers do not always align, even in the most harmonious of organisations. The workplace is a contested space of rights, responsibilities, and obligations for both parties. Furthermore, the question of time remains unresolved and will remain so. For example, employees in South Korea recently faced a demand to raise the working hours maximum to 69 hours per week. In South Africa, a review of the 45-hour maximum has been discussed. In fact, around the globe, there has been little movement since the establishment of the eight-hour day or 40-hour week even though the world of work has changed dramatically since the 1850s.

The times are still changing. The COVID-19 pandemic challenged established ways of working around where employees work, how long they work and autonomy over when they work. Combined with the demands of parents and younger generations who want and expect some balance between work and personal time, the question of time has again come to the forefront like the 1860s.

What is different now though is that many employers are having to respond to employee demands not because of mass walkouts and protests but rather in recognition of the need to address worker wellbeing, the challenges of retaining talent in post-Covid labour markets, and the fact that workers are voting with their feet when employers only offer traditional working patterns. Furthermore, and echoing the international theme of the 1st of May, options for many employees are indeed now international both in terms of brain drain and the opportunity to work for companies located globally and from anywhere.

The four-day workweek is just one example of this trend. Although there has been interest in shorter working weeks at other times in the last half-century, employers now wish to offer something different to their employees. Working 80% of the time for 100% of the pay and delivering 100% of the work has an attractive appeal to employers wanting to retain talent and employees wanting more than the eight-hour, five-day week. Many thousands of employers are working under these arrangements around the world and around 30 South African companies are experimenting.

It is not just innovations at the company level that are driving change and will drive future changes in working times. For decades, if not nearly a century, the promise of new technology has led to predictions of the future leisure society and the very short working week. These visions have not been realised but new technology has allowed workers much greater autonomy over when and where they work – a trend accelerated by Covid-19. Even the expansion gig work demonstrates the role of technology for workers across the wage spectrum. The Uber economy illustrates that technology can give flexibility and autonomy over when to work for many workers, albeit with insecurities and low pay for many.

This year has been marked by the explosion of AI technologies for day-to-day work and study. Some predict that the rapid rise of AI technologies could lead to even more time away from the office. That prediction, like others before, would ultimately depend on how such technologies are deployed, applied, and used by whom. Whatever the impact on the duration of hours there will undoubtedly be an impact on the quality of working hours - intensity, autonomy, and scheduling.

Workers themselves, just as in 1856, are also a driver for change. Studies increasingly show that employees with in-demand skills request and expect their employers to offer flexibility over the control, location, and duration of working hours. This is not available to all but has accelerated under Covid-19 and has been offered to more employees at all levels.

Similarly, Generation Z and Millennials, both men as well as women, express a desire for a greater balance in their lives and show less willingness to dedicate all of their time (and their working lives) to a single organisation. At the other end of the age spectrum, older workers can benefit from working time flexibilities and adaptations to permit longer working lives in the face of greater longevity and more healthy years of life.

What International Workers' Day reminds us is that the contested nature of time at work and outside work is just as relevant in the 2020s as in the 1850s. Across the world, employers are faced with the challenges of skills shortages at all levels. While some workers are able to use the demand for their talents to carve out ideal working conditions, others are faced with options that do not fit their needs leading to low engagement, poor well-being and inevitably an unsustainable situation. Innovations like the four-day workweek show that some firms are willing to innovate to be at the front edge of the change but the timely reminder of International Workers' Day will still be needed to prompt us that time underpins the struggle for a healthy, fair and balanced working life.