Estonian politicians dare not propose shorter workweek

Liina Laks
, reporter
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin (Social Democratic Party) proposed switching the country to a six-day workweek on Monday.
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin (Social Democratic Party) proposed switching the country to a six-day workweek on Monday. Photo: Valtioneuvosto

Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin (Social Democratic Party) proposed switching the country to a six-day workweek on Monday. She gave as the reason improved productivity of workers and wealth generated as a result also reaching employees, next to shareholders. Marin added that the coronavirus crisis has hiked unemployment and that the measure could help alleviate the situation. Politicians remain cautious when talking about a shorter workweek in Estonia.

Even the Estonian Social Democratic Party (SDE) does not dare call for a shorter workday. “The eight-hour workday was adopted by several countries over 100 years ago. Growing productivity and income and significance attached to leisure time and time spent with relatives and friends suggest we could move toward a shorter workday or week. Increased productivity and smart working create favorable conditions,” said SDE MP Riina Sikkut. She added that she believes it is what Estonia should aim for as working six hours a day or four days a week would yield flexibility. “People could better marry their professional and private lives and we would see less work-related stress,” she said. Nevertheless, Sikkut dared not repeat the Finnish PM’s call. “It is clear that we cannot shorten everyone’s workday starting tomorrow. We cannot find more workers overnight or hike companies’ expenses to this degree. However, shortening the time we spend working should be a long-term goal,” Sikkut said.

Employers are reluctant to entertain the idea of shorter working time. “Employers still find that a mandatory shorter working time would be neither sensible nor necessary. Prosperity grows as a result of working and we will not be able to boost our well-being by making less of an effort. True, work needs to become smarter and offer greater value added but such leaps cannot take place overnight,” said Arto Aas, head of the Estonian Employers Confederation.

Revenue lost

Aas said that a six-hour workday would effectively mean working 25 percent less. “This means 25 percent less services, production and revenue. The question of who will make up for this deficiency remains unanswered. You cannot boost productivity and income by passing laws. Therefore, someone else will simply have to do the work left undone, while Estonia is already short on qualified labor. So, if we want to talk about a shorter working time, we also need to talk about lower salaries, less tax revenue and poorer-quality public services,” Aas warned.

The employers’ representatives said that Estonia’s labor regulation should be more flexible. “People increasingly want to have personalized working hours, place and other conditions. And if a company can remain competitive while having its employees work fewer hours, that is their prerogative. However, it would constitute a slump in quality of life and international competitive ability for Estonia if done on a national level,” Aas found.

Secretary general of the Center Party and member of the Riigikogu Economic Affairs Committee Mihhail Korb said that while the prime minister’s party has discussed a shorter workday, it has not shaped a single position. “I believe that it would not be sensible to effect such major change hurriedly,” Korb said. The time has not come yet.

“The economy and the way people live has changed a lot in connection with the coronavirus crisis over the past six months. Let us recall major labor shortage at the start of the year. First, we need to determine the problem shortening the workday would help solve after which we can work out a sensible solution with representatives of organizations it concerns. I find that flexible work organization and efficiency are more important than the length of the working day.”

Yes to flexibility

Member of the Riigikogu Economic Affairs Committee Sven Sester (Isamaa) said that the Finnish prime minister’s call includes little that is new. “Who wouldn’t like a shorter working day or more free days? That said, it is clear that we cannot have universal working time or volume for all positions. A society and people cannot vacation themselves wealthy,” Sester said, adding that in a situation where the pandemic is set to hit working opportunities and income, promoting working less and making less money is not the way to go.

Sester said that more “progressive employers” are already making changes to work organization. “If entrepreneurs and employees can find a work organization that allows the latter to work shorter days without losing in productivity, we are all for it. But Isamaa does not support new regulations and red tape.” Rather, flexible working relationships and lower labor taxes should be considered, Sester found.