By Shenal Fernando
Globally, there is a rapidly expanding school of thought, particularly after the Covid-19 pandemic, that a four-day workweek is more effective and that it leads to an increase in productivity and employee satisfaction.
This was tested out in August 2019 by Microsoft Japan which experimented with a four-day work week in its Japan offices without a paycut. The shortened workweek led to more efficient meetings, happier workers and boosted productivity by a staggering 40%, the company concluded at the end of the trial. Similarly, a recent study in Iceland revealed that a four-day workweek without a paycut led to improved worker well-being and productivity. Belgium has tentatively embraced this new school of thought by recognising the right to work a five-day week in four days with no loss of salary. Similarly, the Spanish Government in 2021 agreed to a 32-hour workweek over three years, without a paycut. Furthermore, several Japanese companies such as Panasonic have embraced this new school of thought in order to boost productivity.
On 13 June 2022, the Cabinet of Ministers of Sri Lanka approved a proposal presented by the Minister of Public Administration and Home Affairs Dinesh Gunawardena to implement a four-day workweek for the public sector with the exception of essential services, with a holiday on Friday for a period of three months. However, in contrast to most other countries, Sri Lanka’s primary motivation for implementing a four-day workweek isn’t to increase the productivity of its much-maligned public sector which is notorious for its low productivity, but to reduce fuel consumption.
Sri Lanka is currently facing the most severe economic crisis in its post-independence history. The collapse of its tourism and low worker remittances have resulted in a crippling foreign exchange liquidity crisis. Meanwhile, the Government’s misguided organic agriculture policy has created fears of a potential food shortage by August 2022.
The Sri Lankan Government is currently struggling to meet the country’s fuel demand. This was recognised by Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe on 15 June 2022, when he stated that the Government would be able to meet only 50% of the country’s fuel demand in the next few weeks, giving priority to electricity and transport. Therefore, the reduction of the fuel demand was the Government’s primary motivation in imposing this four-day workweek. However, the Cabinet of Ministers in their decision further provided that Government workers will be expected to engage in agricultural activities in their backyards or elsewhere on Friday as a solution to the food shortage and that the Government will provide them with the necessary facilities for such an endeavour.
A beneficial development?
Speaking to The Sunday Morning Business, LIRNEasia Founding Chair and Advocata Institute Advisor Prof. Rohan Samarajiva was highly critical of this decision by the Government. He claimed that the Government and the public services were expected to serve the needs of the public. Therefore, he questioned the appropriateness of the Government sector working for only 80% of the expected work time without a paycut and pointed to the resulting impact on the economy and the inconveniences caused to the public. He further questioned whether it was appropriate to impact the productivity of the entire economy merely to save fuel.
Elaborating further he stated: “This is a ridiculous decision, in my opinion. What they should have done was provide their service for five days a week and allow a certain portion of their workforce to work from home in order to save fuel. But the idea to completely shut down Government offices for a day is ridiculous, and is an insult to the tax paying public of this country.”
He pointed out that the Government could have kept Government offices open on all five days in order to ensure that the needs of the public were being met, while at the same time, save fuel by implementing a roster under which the public sector workers will be required to work at the office for only four days a week but for longer shifts.
“If the objective of the Government was to save fuel, why did it not require the State workers to work on a roster basis for four days a week for longer shifts? We could have implemented a roster and kept Government offices open for five days a week. This is a classic case of a self-centred Government that doesn’t think of the public,” Prof. Samarajiva stated.
He drew parallels between this decision and the decision by former Finance Minister N.M. Perera, who during the 1970’s fuel crisis took a similar decision when he reduced the existing five-and-a-half day workweek at the time to a five-day workweek in order to reduce fuel consumption. However, he pointed out that similar to the current decision, the workweek reduction was applicable only to the public sector and so, any benefit derived from the fuel saved was lost due to the decrease in economic productivity as the public and the private sector were denied Government services for an entire working day.
The public sector in Sri Lanka provides employment to over 1.5 million workers. Government departments, public corporations and State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) are infamous for being over-staffed and for their low-productivity. Therefore, there arises a hope that this decision to implement a four-day workweek without a pay cut could lead to greater satisfaction and improved productivity.
However, speaking to The Sunday Morning Business, University of Colombo (UoC) Department of Economics Senior Lecturer and Attorney-at-Law Dr. Shanuka Senarath was quick to dissuade us from such hopeful thinking. He pointed out that the public sector rarely engaged in productive work beyond routine work. Therefore, he stated that he did not expect this decision to have any effect on the productivity of the public sector and further claimed that he would not be surprised if this decision led to a further decrease in public sector productivity.
Former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank (CBSL) Dr. W.A. Wijewardena was more optimistic, believing that this decision may lead to an increase in productivity. He further stated that this decision by the Government to implement a four-day workweek was expected and that it was required due to the current fuel shortage in the country.
He further stated: “Considering the situation, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Government is compelled to allow public sector employees to work from home during the whole workweek. The fuel crisis is so acute that there isn’t sufficient fuel even for public transport. Given this situation, if employees are required to report to work daily, they will waste a significant portion of their time travelling. Therefore, it is better to allow non-essential workers to work from home the entire week.”
Dr. Senarath pointed out that the current Government’s policies continued to be misguided and contradictory, because the Government in its decision to reduce the workweek for the public sector, had precluded the education sector from said decision, despite the fact that many low-income students do not have access to education due to the current travel disruptions caused by the fuel shortage. He pointed out that the Government’s failure to consider the resulting lack of access to education for low-income students contradicted its previous position to move away from virtual learning to physical learning on the grounds that low-income students were denied access to education.
“The Government has failed to even implement this decision to reduce the workweek to four days properly. It is the educational sector that should have been granted this reduction in the workweek. Instead the Government has reduced the workweek for all public sector workers other than those employed in the education sector,” Dr. Senarath lamented.
Prof. Samarajiva criticised the Government for being ill-prepared to deal with the current fuel shortage and for this poorly thought-out decision to reduce the workweek. He pointed out that the Government should have proactively considered all available options for reducing fuel demand and taken steps to prepare contingency plans to address a shortage in fuel supply.
“If there is a fuel shortage, they should have considered what to do. Do you give priority to the export sector for diesel? Do you also give priority for buses with regard to diesel? Then in the case of petrol, who do you give priority to? You shouldn’t make random arbitrary decisions like this. You give priority to certain services and then you implement certain types of rationing schemes to distribute the remaining fuel.”
He further stated that a responsible government which was aware of the possibility of a fuel shortage would have developed contingency plans to deal with different stages of such a potential fuel shortage and develop effective rationing schemes.