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For a Four-Day Week on the Building Site

Discussions around the four-day week have focused too much on white-collar work – but the case for fewer hours without loss of pay is even stronger in sectors like construction.

Credit: Dougal Waters / Getty Images

A four-day work week with no reduction in pay has quickly moved from pipe-dream to potential reality. Iceland, Scotland, Spain, and New Zealand are either toying with or actually introducing different iterations of the policy.

New UK polling released last week found that 48 percent of adults want to replace the conventional five-day, 9-5 work week. Only 37 percent said they want to keep it. Previous surveys showed 63 percent support for the government exploring the idea (with 12 percent opposed), and 42 cross-party MPs in favour. Research by the Green New Deal APPG claims 52 percent support for a shorter working week as we emerge from the pandemic.

Some, however, see the idea as exclusionary. High-profile trials at companies like Microsoft, Deloitte, and KPMG have fed into a focus on white-collar desk jobs. With Covid forcing many of us to work from home, the idea of a four-day week has woven its way into our reimagining of the way we structure our labour. But even in Western nations only around 40 percent of people can realistically work remotely; worldwide, only 20 percent of the workforce spend their days at a desk.

If a four-day week is to be truly emancipatory, then, it needs to be inclusive. We need to think about teachers, drivers, hospital staff, and shopkeepers. Everyone has been saying they’re ‘essential’, which is true – so we need to make sure they can benefit from shorter working hours too. In a report published this week, the 4 Day Week Campaign looked at how a four-day week could apply to those in the construction industry.

Construction is a notoriously overworked on-site sector. Only 14 percent of labourers work fewer than 40 hours a week, while 13 percent report spending over 60 hours a week on the job. 44 percent also spend two or three hours a day commuting.

This all takes a heavy toll. Construction also involves intense physical exertion and danger, and requires meticulous focus. Long hours mean workers are fatigued, physically and mentally, as well as sleep deprived. The sector is the UK’s deadliest to work in, with the third highest rate in the nation for on-site accidents.

Those working 12-hour days are 7.5 times more likely to be sleep deprived, meaning workers are 62 percent more likely to have an accident. Overexertion is the second highest contributor to accidents. Jobs with overtime also have a 61 percent higher chance of physical health issues: 42 percent of construction workers suffer from knee pain, while over 60 percent have lower back pain.

Working in construction also increases the risk of heart disease, strokes, and occupational cancer. Those working 55 hours a week or more are 17 percent more likely to die from heart disease and 35 percent more likely to have a stroke than those working 35-40 hours a week.

Mental health comes into play, too. The Health and Safety Executive estimates that over a quarter of work-related illness in the construction industry is related to stress, depression, and anxiety. Substance abuse and addiction are not rare: in the US, it’s been found that construction workers are the second most likely to develop substance use disorders, which specialists attribute to ‘long days that are often filled with repetitive tasks [and substances being used] as a way to numb physical pain caused by hours of manual labour.’ Compared to the UK average, construction workers are three times more likely to die by suicide.

Often, tragically, the decision to introduce a four-day week hinges on productivity. The apparent worry with physical labour is that desk-job tricks like picking up the phone, rather than emailing, don’t apply. But the movement for reduced working hours started with industrial labour. A German factory in the early 1900s reduced hours and found that output increased. The industrialist Henry Ford penned a book in 1926 insisting that ‘a full week’s wage for a short week’s work will pay.’ Even Frederick Taylor’s landmark Scientific Management Theory argued for reduced hours to increase productivity as far back as 1909.

Today, a powerful argument can be made that better worker health and lower fatigue levels would lead to fewer accidents, fewer sick days, and more work ultimately getting done – which is what the bosses want. In the UK, a quarter of sick days are linked to workload. One Glasgow-based four-day week company reported that since introducing the policy sick days have fallen to ‘practically zero’. One trial in a Swedish care home, a physical on-site workplace, saw a 10 percent reduction in absences.

A speculative equivalent reduction in the construction industry would see 210,000 fewer sick days per year, which translates into approximately £57 million worth of extra labour. Oscar Cooper, a construction worker who runs a small four-day week business, explained it well: ‘I can work for four days at a higher level than I could for five days. On a five-day week, on a Friday you’re just watching the clock, desperate to go home, trying to chip off early. You’re knackered […] It’s inefficient and it’s dangerous.’

Introducing a four-day week in the construction sector could have other surprising knock-on effects, too. The industry is currently crippled by labour shortages. There are 38,000 job vacancies, and it’s projected that we’ll need 217,000 new construction workers by 2025 just to meet demand, especially as new infrastructure is urgently required to address climate change.

But people don’t want to join the industry, and workers are retiring early. Additionally, only one percent of on-site labourers are women. As Fergus Harradence of BEIS put it, ‘There is simply no way, in the level of demographic change that [construction firms] face, that they will be able to recruit the number of workers to maintain the labour-intensive business model.’

A four-day week would make working in construction more appealing to new recruits, reduce the physical and mental strain for older workers—meaning fewer early retirements—and make it easier for women to join the industry, since long hours exclude those unjustly expected to carry the lion’s share of unpaid labour at home. This would help plug the employment gap: we need a modern construction industry to tackle the climate crisis, and a four-day week could help us do that.

Despite all this evidence, employers must still be persuaded. Unions will need to organise and put pressure on those with more power to implement changes in work hours, just as they did during the Great Depression when fighting for the creation of the weekend. The five-day workweek is arbitrary and anachronistic, but has come to be seen as ‘natural’. It’s not.

Reducing the proportion of our lives spent labouring is emancipatory. The construction industry is admittedly a complicated environment to introduce such ideas. Workers are already insecure, and could legitimately be scared about reduced hours corresponding to reduced pay, which none of us want. But if done right it could be transformative. While bosses need to be convinced, the case isn’t hard to make.

Our first serious look in the UK at taking the policy beyond the desk-job strongly suggests that a four-day week doesn’t have to be white-collar only. In fact, it would most likely have larger and wider ranging benefits on-site than in any office. Our work-life balance is out of kilter, unnecessarily and unsustainably—but, in the immortal words of Bob the Builder, ‘Can we fix it? Yes, we can!’