A move to a four-day working week would add at least €4.2 billion on to the public sector pay bill, Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath has said.
Mr McGrath said the move would also pose a “huge challenge” to emergency service provision, teaching children and childcare arrangements.
“With this in mind, and in light of the large potential costs and disruption to critical services, I do not believe that it is the right time to consider a transition to a four-day week,” he said.
The Government has requested that research on the proposal be carried out and the comments come after the announcement of plans for a six-month pilot project by Four Day Week Ireland, which includes the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, the National Women’s Council of Ireland, Friends of the Earth Ireland, academics and some private companies.
The experiment, which will run from January, will assess the impact of shifting employees to the shorter working week while still on the same pay. Groups in the US, UK, New Zealand and Spain are running similar trials.
Joe O’Connor of Fórsa trade union, chair of Four Day Week Ireland, challenged Mr McGrath’s “inaccurate assumption” that shortening the working week would have a knock-on drop in productivity and increased pay-roll costs.
“That certainly goes against all the evidence in terms of Irish companies which have trialled and introduced it, and international companies which have successfully introduced a four-day working week,” he said.
“In the vast, vast majority of those experiences, they have managed not just to maintain current levels of productivity, but to increase it.”
Mr O’Connor accepted the concept “can’t be a one-size-fits-all model” and that there “would obviously be a need for different forms of flexibility for different employers, different sectors and also for different workers”.
He said Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise Leo Varadkar was “much more open minded” about a reduced working week in a recent meeting, and he hoped to meet Mr McGrath soon about the matter.
Mr Varadkar and Minister for Environment Eamon Ryan have pledged up to €150,000 to research the social, economic and environmental implications of a shorter working week. Mr Varadkar said it was “hard to see” how it would work in areas such as health, education and manufacturing.
On reducing the working week for civil servants and public sector employees, Mr McGrath said there were two main concerns – the cost to the taxpayer and continuity of public services.
The need to recruit more staff, particularly for frontline services, meant “potentially significant costs”, and an analysis of the costs covering more than 342,000 public servants in nearly 200 organisations would involve “a high degree of complexity”.
“At a very high level, paying people for four days but providing services to the citizen over five and, in some cases, seven days would add at least a fifth to the current pay bill of approximately €21 billion,” he said.
“That equates to an extra €4.2 billion that would have to be found to deliver the same level of services. This is likely a conservative estimate, given the premiums associated with overtime and agency staffing, which would likely be required.”
In response to a parliamentary question from People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith, Mr McGrath asked how a four-day week would allow schools to “teach our children properly”.
“What would happen to childcare costs if the public service moved but parts of the private sector did not? And how would the emergency services – hospitals, fire brigades, lifeguards and the gardaí – operate on a four-day week?” he asked.
A global petition for a reduced working week – supported by Four Day Week Ireland – is being launched online on Monday.