The question of whether to reduce working hours is being analyzed in different countries. There has been much comment in recent years about the possible reduction of the working week to 4 days. However, this change is not exempt from debate due to the impact it will have on the business organization. For a legislative change in this respect, the formula for implementing this reduction is still to be decided: eliminating one working day a week or reducing the maximum working hours on an annual basis.

International Labor Day is celebrated in many countries around the world on May 1. This day was established by agreement of the Socialist Workers Congress of the Second International, which took place in Paris in 1889, as a tribute to the Chicago Martyrs, who were imprisoned and sentenced to death for riots that took place during the strike started on May 1, 1886, in the factories of that city to demand an 8-hour workday from the employers.

The principle of the 8-hour workday was promoted by Robert Owen in 1817, coining the slogan “eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation, eight hours of rest”. He sought to reduce the then endless working hours to a 40-hour work week, with 8 hours of work per day.

The General Conference of the International Labor Organization, on October 29, 1919, in Washington, D.C., adopted its Convention No. 1, establishing the maximum working day of 8 hours a day and 48 hours a week.

More than 100 years later, the implementation of a 4-day workweek is being evaluated in many countries. To analyze the feasibility of this possible change, pilot projects have been initiated.

In the Iberian Peninsula, in June 2023, Portugal launched a 4-day workweek pilot project involving 41 private sector companies, 95% of which evaluated the experience positively.

The adoption of the 4-day work week in the companies participating in the Portuguese project resulted, on average, in a 13.7% reduction in weekly working hours, from an average of 39.3 to 34 hours, without any reduction in wages. A total of 58.8% of the companies granted one day off per week, while 41.5% opted to give one day off in alternate weeks, i.e. alternating the 4-day week with the 5-day week. Some companies created a pool of hours with the difference resulting from the reduction to be used during work peaks.

However, the implementation of the 4-day week requires significant organizational adjustments in companies. Moreover, from an employment law point of view, starting a pilot project of this kind could generate legal problems at the end of the project if the appropriate mechanisms are not established to guarantee reversibility: in practice, the reduction of working hours, without modifying the salary, leads to an increase in the hourly wage and, therefore, reversing the measure would mean reducing the hourly wage, which would not be possible if it had not been previously established that the reduction of working hours had a specific duration or no provision had been made for reversing it, to avoid clashing with the principle of Portuguese labor law that prohibits the reduction of remuneration.

In Spain, the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Tourism launched a pilot project in May 2023 with grants to small and medium-sized industrial companies for the reduction of working hours without salary reduction for a minimum period of 2 years. A total of 41 companies applied to participate.

On February 22, 2024, the Congress approved a non-legislative proposal regarding the reduction of the maximum legal ordinary working hours, requesting the Government to urgently open a process of social dialogue culminating in the amendment of Article 34 of the Workers’ Statute (WS) to reduce the working hours progressively, starting with the establishment by 2024 of a maximum working hours of 38.5 hours per week and culminating with a maximum working hours of 37.5 hours per week.

There are still many questions as to what this legislative modification will consist of in Spain. Apparently, there could be a reduction of working hours on an annual basis, instead of the elimination of one working day a week, with several formulas for different sectors or companies, for example: reducing the number of minutes in the daily working day; reduction concentrated in periods of less work (implementing or extending the intensive summer working hours, for example); or decreasing the working hours in specific days of the week. It is still too early to know the shape that will take the future modification of article 34 of the WS.

We will have to keep an eye on how the possible legislative changes make progress and their practical implementation in companies.


Rita Nogueira Neto and Cecilia Pérez Martínez