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Experts divided as Japan government backs four-day workweek

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The government plans to encourage firms to let their employees choose to work four days a week instead of five, aiming to improve the balance between work and life for people who have family-care responsibilities or need more time off to acquire new skills.

The government included the promotion of an optional four-day workweek in its annual economic policy guideline finalized Friday by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s Cabinet.

Experts are divided, however, on whether the new initiative, intended to address challenges posed by the country’s labor shortage, will be widely accepted, with labor and management both voicing concerns about possible unwanted outcomes.

For employers, while people working four days a week may become more motivated, this may not improve their productivity enough to compensate for the lost workday. Employees, meanwhile, fear pay cuts.

Among expected advantages are helping people with family-care responsibilities avoid the need to quit their jobs, promotion of recurrent education, and helping more people take on side jobs, the government said.

The coronavirus pandemic has helped the idea of a four-day workweek gain traction as the health crisis causes people to spend more time at home.

In late April, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party recommended that the government take policy measures to facilitate adoption of the system.

The LDP said working fewer days is expected to promote “diversified working styles” and prompt workers with new skills to move to growing industries such as IT.

At a key economic and fiscal policy panel meeting in mid-April where the promotion of a four-day workweek was discussed, Suga said his government would consider expanding support for people willing to enhance their careers through recurrent education without leaving their jobs.

Among major economies, Australian, Canadian, Italian and U.S. employees work longer hours than Japanese, according to the OECD’s survey. But Japan’s labor market remains rigid, with productivity showing limited improvement as people take fewer holidays compared to other developed countries and labor mobility stays low.

According to a survey conducted on over 4,000 firms by the labor ministry last year, 8.3% of them were giving their employees more days off than under a five-day workweek.

Internet and e-commerce service giant Yahoo Japan Corp. started allowing its employees who need more time off for caregiving to take three days off a week in April 2017.

“It has been favorably received in general, with some employees saying that it became easier to match their days off with their children’s activities,” a Yahoo Japan spokesman said.

Meanwhile, Hisashi Yamada, vice chairman of think tank Japan Research Institute, said he does not expect a four-day workweek to rapidly spread in Japan even with the government pushing it because it would complicate personnel management and evaluation.

“Let’s say, if employees take second jobs, it would be difficult for managers to know how long they work in total and to evaluate equally those who take two days off a week and those who take three. From the employees’ standpoint, they would not want to see their income from their main jobs decrease,” said Yamada, who is well versed in labor economics issues.

At Yahoo Japan and many other firms offering an option of fewer workdays, extra holidays are unpaid. The Yahoo Japan spokesman said just about 100 of some 7,000 employees at the company had applied for the four-day workweek as of April. Those who want more days off for such purposes as acquiring new skills and taking side jobs are not eligible for the program, he said.

Japan Research’s Yamada said he believes some small- and medium-sized businesses cannot afford to give such extra days off, and some businesses might try to cut labor costs by applying a four-day workweek even to employees who want to work more days.

“It will be important for the government to draw up a framework guaranteeing a worker’s right to choose whether to take three days off a week,” he said.

Takuya Hoshino, an economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, says simply introducing a four-day workweek may not necessarily encourage employees to use their time off in a way that benefits their careers or contributes to the economy.

“It’s important for companies to make it clear what they intend in adopting such a system” and provide necessary support to employees to that end, he said.

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