Australia’s public service commission rejects four-day week bid

By on 26/07/2023 | Updated on 26/07/2023
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The Australian Public Service Commission (APSC) has rejected a bid by federal government employees and unions for a four-day work week.

The bid entered negotiations between public service unions and the government in June. The idea was that public servants could be allowed to work just under 9.5 hours per day over four days rather than the current 7.5 hours a day over five, resulting in no loss of pay.

The proposal was pitched in negotiations as a way of increasing the government’s focus on productivity as well as attracting the talent needed to deliver policies and services.

The commission said its chief negotiator Peter Riordan had considered the request but that it was “unable to support this initiative or a trial in Australian Public Service (APS) agencies”.

According to the APSC, Riordan took the view that there was already “a range of flexibilities… for APS employees to achieve an appropriate work-life balance”, including part-time or “compressed” working arrangements, “flextime” and other flexible working arrangements it said might be agreed in the bargaining process.

In April, the APSC published a set of flexible working principles in an effort to make the public service what it described as “a model employer” and to “redefine the future of work” in government. A four-day work week, along with a policy of flexible working by default, were both key demands made by the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU) during negotiations around the same time, and the APSC had said it would cautiously consider allowing staff to work a four-day week.

Melissa Donnelly, CPSU’s national secretary, said at the time that the APS faced “an attraction and retention crisis”, and that APS employees were “bearing the brunt” through “burnout, turnover and workloads all sitting higher than they should be”.

“Fully embracing flexible work and opening the doors of APS employment to new parts of the population could be a game-changer,” she said.

The APSC’s flexible work principles sought to embed flexible working around the organisational needs of the APS without losing “meaningful and regular face-to-face contact”. The move also intended to attract a more diverse pool of candidates, especially those based outside Canberra.

Read more: Australian Public Service: uncapped remote working on the cards

More flexible futures?

Governments in other countries have weighed the benefits of a four-day work week in recent years.

The Belgian federal government said it was looking into the possibility for its own staff after it introduced a labour deal early last year which allowed workers in the private sector to ask their employers to grant them the flexibility of a four-day work week.

“The whole labour deal is about the statutes and working conditions in the private sector, so it does not apply to [civil servants],” Petra De Sutter, the federal minister of civil service, told Het Laatste Nieuws in February 2022. “But if there is also a demand among civil servants for such a four-day regime, in order to better balance work and private life, I am certainly willing to investigate what is possible.”

Civil servants working for the devolved Scottish Government in the UK, meanwhile, were invited to participate in a pilot of a four-day working week last year.

The government said that it was “committed to exploring with trade unions and employers opportunities for developing non-pay benefits”, and added that the arrangement would “in the longer term… be an opportunity to limit the cost burden of pay awards to employers, act as a lever to improve productivity, and optimise the role of automation and digitalisation of services, all while creating high value job opportunities and contributing to the wellbeing economy”.

However, Cat Boyd, national officer for the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, said the compromise on public servants’ salaries resulting from such non-pay benefits was “ill-considered and frankly insulting”.

“Any reduction to the working week which cuts pay reverses the economic and workforce benefits,” she said.

The PCS has been campaigning more widely for a four-day working week without loss of pay.

In January this year, analysis of four-day week trial at South Cambridgeshire District Council found it to be “overwhelming positive” for staff heath and wellbeing without denting performance.

Read more: Belgium to explore four-day working week for civil servants

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About Jack Aldane

Jack is a British journalist, cartoonist and podcaster. He graduated from Heythrop College London in 2009 with a BA in philosophy, before living and working in China for three years as a freelance reporter. After training in financial journalism at City University from 2013 to 2014, Jack worked at Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters before moving into editing magazines on global trade and development finance. Shortly after editing opinion writing for UnHerd, he joined the independent think tank ResPublica, where he led a media campaign to change the health and safety requirements around asbestos in UK public buildings. As host and producer of The Booking Club podcast – a conversation series featuring prominent authors and commentators at their favourite restaurants – Jack continues to engage today’s most distinguished thinkers on the biggest problems pertaining to ideology and power in the 21st century. He joined Global Government Forum as its Senior Staff Writer and Community Co-ordinator in 2021.

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