Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Nice try but not yet

This was my column on the date indicated above.This post is antedated.


Quezon City Representative Winston Castelo shot to national prominence the other week when his bill, the “Four Day Work Week Act of 2011” got picked up by media. Employer groups and the labor sector took turns lambasting the proposal. It was one of the few times employers and the labor sector were on the same side of an issue.

Castelo’s bill aimed to institute a ten-hour four-day (10/4) workweek in the country. In a perfect world, such a proposal would have merited praise and commendation. Unfortunately, not only do we live in an imperfect world, we also are a country that has low tolerance for new ideas, particularly those that require acrobatic shifts in paradigms. Thus, public reaction was mixed but mostly negative. There were a few who thought the idea was an inspired one. And then there were those who denounced the proposal calling it nonsensical. They thought it promoted indolence. And then, because we are in the Philippines, there were those who attacked the messenger. Some attached colorful adjectives to Castelo’s name, many of which cannot be repeated in polite company.

It’s really sad that we seemed to have come to a point where we have lost our capacity to see pure intentions in the actions of legislators. I cannot blame people for mistrusting our legislators. Congress is jammed with bills that boggle the mind. Do you know that there are bills that propose more leaves for workers? There’s even a bill that seeks to further increase maternity benefits for women, another bill that aims to provide prenatal leaves for every month that a woman is pregnant, and yet another bill that proposes family leaves for spouses to take care of sick family members. Thus, people can be forgiven for seeing Castelo’s 10/4 proposal, which seeks to reduce work hours, in a negative light.

To be fair, though, there are merits to the proposal. And really, many people simply engaged in verbal diarrhea without bothering to understand what Castelo really proposed.

The 10/4 proposal will not change the traditional 40 hours of work every week or cut back on service or productivity. “It will still be 40 hours a week, but the work schedule will run from Monday to Thursday instead of until Friday. Public- and private-sector employees will put in two additional hours of work daily,” Castelo said. The proposal cited a number of supposed benefits that would be derived in terms of savings in transportation and other related costs for workers and for companies, savings in overhead such as energy, water, etc.

Unfortunately, it seems Castelo has not really thought through the other details. For example, changing the number of work hours will invariably require changes in computing daily wages, overtime costs, leaves and other benefits, which incidentally are covered by legislation that needs to be amended, revised or changed. It’s not going to be that easy. One bill will not do the trick; if he really is serious about it, Castelo needs to talk to more legislators and develop a more comprehensive bill. For example, surely we cannot keep the current number of vacation, sick, and other leaves if we give employees three-day weekends. Surely we have to rethink the number of holidays in this country. This would mean amending many, many laws.

And then there is the matter of changing production schedules and syncing these with global and seasonal demands. Not everybody in this country works in offices or in jobs that can be done at home and therefore subject to schedules that can be turned flexible. Manufacturing plants, for examples, have fixed production schedules that require at least 12 months of planning.

It can be argued of course that all these can be changed with a little more political will and with strategic thinking. And there’s the rub. I am not sure that our leaders are prepared to go out on a limb to make 10/4 work.

The prevailing notion is that a compressed workweek scheme will promote indolence and will negatively affect productivity. Actually, the empirical evidence that shows otherwise is quite robust. In many countries where the scheme is practiced, they noted that productivity levels actually soared higher, employees reported less health problems, and volunteerism for social causes, which naturally helped promote social equity, surged. Of course the studies were conducted in the Western setting where work is no longer predominantly manual and where unemployment is significantly lower. My point is that we should not be too quick to dismiss ideas.

In fact, I think the quick reaction about how a compressed workweek will reduce productivity and promote indolence is a hypothesis that seems more indicative of a paternalistic paradigm that hues more closely to Theory X—the belief that people are lazy by nature and that metaphorically, if they give them a hand they will grab the whole arm.

Work-life balance is not a just for people have been working hard all their life, nor is it a concept designed exclusively for the harassed, the stressed, and the burned-out. These people probably need more than just work-life balance. Besides everyone is probably harassed today regardless of their station in life (someone once told me that even the jobless do get tired and stressed out worrying about their lot). Work-life programs need to be seen as investments in people’s welfare, not necessarily just as reward for those who are deemed to have earned it by virtue of long years of hard work. We implement work-life programs precisely to avoid burnout.

Having said that, I think it is also important to recognize that there is wisdom in knowing what our priorities should be as a country and as a people. Today, the need is to enhance our competitiveness. The challenge is to generate more employment and enhance employability. Although these can be pursued hand-in-hand with the proposed 10/4 scheme, we need to accept that pursuing both is counterproductive. As the old Chinese saying goes, “If you chase two rabbits at the same time, both will get away.” In short, let’s focus first our efforts in producing more jobs before thinking of ways to redesign them.

This does not mean though that we cannot recognize efforts to think out of the box when we see them. The 10/4 proposal is an innovative idea. What I really like about the idea is its potential impact on efforts to save the environment. In many countries, compressed workweeks significantly reduced carbon emissions as well as usage or energy, water, as well as volume of waste generated. This will work in the Philippines if everyone agrees to cut back on work schedules not simply rearrange work schedules of people around the same seven–day work schedule. Otherwise, the impact to the environment would be the same and the whole exercise would have been pointless.

The 10/4 proposal is a good idea. But unfortunately, it’s ahead of its time for this country. We’re not ready for it. More importantly, we need to think through the various implications of the proposal more thoroughly and more comprehensively.

Nice try, but for the moment, no cigar.

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