An Actual Weekend? Israel Mulls Cutting Work Week from 6 to 5 Days

As the government and the Histadrut were haggling over a new general wage agreement this week, more Israelis discovered that the work week here could be shortened from six to five days, and the economy would survive.

One of those Israelis was Finance Minister Moshe Nissim, who at 2 a.m. Wednesday came out of seven-and-a-half hours of negotiations with the Histadrut, saying he would propose to the government to officially shorten the work week to five days.

The parties were still at odds regarding a wage agreement. The Treasury is willing to approve wage hikes, but only on condition that the new agreement be for two years. The Histadrut objected, but the negotiations are to continue. There is no immediate threat of a strike similar to the general work stoppage that the Histadrut organized Sunday.

Nissim’s agreement in principle to shorten the work week was seen by the Histadrut negotiators as a gesture of good will.

According to government figures, some 300,000 Israelis already work only five days a week, about a third of them in industry. But each day has been extended to nine hours, meaning a 45-hour week.

So far, the industrialists have expressed opposition to shortening the week, fearing that productivity would decrease–although studies in the West have shown the opposite.

The truth is that in practice, many Israeli employers, especially in industry, have already shortened their weeks to five days at their own initiative, partly to attract workers and partly after they realized that the shorter week brings about greater productivity.

“Productivity has nothing to do with the number of work hours a week, but is linked to the wages, said Haim Haberfeld, chairman of the Trade Unions Division of the Histadrut. The Histadrut has already presented the government with a formal proposal to cut the official work week to 40 hours spread over five days while cutting 10 percent of the manpower in the civil service. According to the Histadrut, the plan would be implemented gradually from April 1988 until 1991. The treasury has not yet reacted to the proposal.

RELATIVELY LONG WEEK

Israel has the longest work week among industrialized states, with an unofficial 45-hour average.

The longest work week in Europe is in Portugal, at about 43 hours. The shortest is in Belgium, which cut its work week to 35.7 hours. Some countries are considering cutting the work week to 35 hours over four days.

Moshe Katzav, Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, expressed support for Israel cutting the week short for laborers. Civil servants should continue working six days a week, he said, so that the industrial workers could use the extra day to get service.

Haberfeld of the Histadrut expressed confidence that even if the government rejects the proposal, by the time elections are held, no core will dare oppose the idea. “I am willing to wage my entire public career that by October 1988, at the latest, we shall have a long weekend,” he said.

To some Israelis, especially the religious population, this could mean a dramatic change in how free time is spent–having an extra day of leisure, without the limitations of observance of the Sabbath.

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