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Manufacturers bristle at minister's four-day workweek proposal
By NIV ELIS
27/02/2014
Infrastructure Minister Silvan Shalom argued that Israel needs to align its business days with the global economy.
 
Infrastructure Minister Silvan Shalom on Thursday reintroduced his four-day work week solution to moving Israel’s weekend. Change is inevitable, he told the Manufacturers Association’s annual event in Tel Aviv.

To better participate in the global economy, Israel should align its business days with the rest of the world, he argued. Other non-Christian countries, including China, Turkey, and Indonesia, have made the change. The issue is how to deal with Shabbat.

Shalom has long favored a compromise. In 2011 the government considered turning Friday into half a work day and adding an hour of work to the other days. On Thursday, he suggested a new option, with different hours in summer and winter months. The longer summer days would increase flexibility for those who observe Shabbat.

“When we have it, we won’t know how we lived without it,” Shalom said.

When a five-day work week was proposed 50 years ago, then-prime minister Levi Eshkol responded that Israel should first work its way up to two, three, and four work days.

Despite his observation that a five-day week was once considered unsustainable in Israel, the crowd was unimpressed.

Manufacturers Association president Zvi Oren said that with Israel’s low productivity, which seems to be deteriorating instead of improving, this is not the time for such a change.

“We don’t have enough of a professional work force,” he said. “At the moment, it’s not a good idea and we will not agree to it.”

Israel has one of the lowest productivity rates and one of the longest work weeks by hour among industrialized economies, making it hard to imagine that it could be sufficiently productive on a reduced schedule.

“I don’t think it’s a realistic option. First we need to get normal salaries out of the work week we have,” said Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel executive director Dan Ben-David.

Fewer hours worked means less money made, which will have to come from somewhere, be it employee salaries or business profits.

Even adding additional working hours to compensate for the extra vacation time would be bad for business, Israel Democracy Institute Senior Fellow Avi Ben-Bassat argued when Shalom first proposed a four-day work week in 2011.

“Research in economics has shown that, as the workday lengthens, the marginal productivity of the workers declines. In other words, the last half hour of work is considerably less effective than the half hour before it,” he said. Businesses that have to coordinate with world markets do so already, he added.

A 2011 study conducted by the National Economic Council, in association with the Bank of Israel and the Education, Finance, and Transport ministries recommended against cutting Sundays from the work week.

“The change would have problematic repercussions for the economy and employment alongside significant increases in costs, so the officials recommended against the change,” a Finance Ministry source told The Jerusalem Post.

The issue was as controversial then as it is now. Ben-Bassat’s colleague, Dr. Arye Carmon, argued that there would be minimal economic effects and that the debate is important to bridge the secular-religious divide.

“This question is not essentially a clear-cut economic issue; rather, one’s personal world view plays a decisive role in the way one approaches the issue,” Carmon said in 2011.
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