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Asia is notorious for having some of the world’s longest working hours. Photo: EPA-EFE

From Singapore to Hong Kong and Japan, is a 4-day work week a pipe dream for Asia?

  • Asian governments and companies have been slower, compared to their Western counterparts, in advocating for a healthy work-life balance
  • But activists say while workers need to be working less, the region is far from ready to pursue such a concept and that employers may even pile on more demands into a shorter work week
New World Development, one of Hong Kong’s largest employers, recently introduced a four-and-a-half day work week to support workers to “maintain a healthy work-life balance”, making it the first major property developer in the city to reduce working hours without cutting pay.

South Korean tech firm Kakao, which has more than 10,000 employees, is planning a pilot programme for flexible and shorter working hours, while in Japan, Hitachi has introduced a system for some 15,000 workers to organise their schedules into a four-day work week.

These are just some recent workplace initiatives being rolled out across Asia, as more companies worldwide seek to improve their employees’ wellbeing and relook what productivity means in the modern workplace.
Office workers walk out for a lunch break at the financial business district in Singapore. Photo: AFP

But in a region notorious for working the longest hours in the world, some critics say such schemes are not likely to reap their intended benefits without governments and employers first addressing the factors behind such an entrenched work culture, and enacting more labour protection.

Anis Hidayah, head of Migrant Care, an Indonesian NGO promoting the rights of migrant workers, said the benefits of a four-day work week depended very much on its implementation and whether workers were expected to achieve the same output in less time.

“How this will affect workers and whether it will increase or decrease productivity is very important,” she said, adding that while the idea was good in practice, it may be difficult to roll out across all forms of employment.

“Across many sectors, workers already work more than eight hours per day, especially in Southeast Asia in countries like Malaysia and Singapore,” she noted. “Perhaps in sectors such as in factories, a four-day work week will be feasible, but I’m not sure about other [roles] such as domestic workers.”

Why do Singapore, Tokyo and Kuala Lumpur work so hard?

It doesn’t help when long work hours are enshrined into law. In South Korea, it is legal for employers to make staff work 52 hours a week – a number reduced from 68 hours in 2018. In Malaysia, a working week should consist of 48 hours, but the reality is very different, activists say.

“Definitely a four-day work week will help workers to have some work-life balance,” said Sivaranjani Manickam, head of the Workers Bureau at the Socialist Party of Malaysia.

“Currently though, the law in Malaysia states that working hours means eight hours per day and 48 hours per week, but in reality, many workers are working 12 hours a day and 84 hours per week,” she said. “So can a four-day work week really work in reality?”

Manickam added that people risked losing their jobs if they rejected overtime work. “The trend is, you only get employed if you are ready to work 12 hours per day. This is the situation in Malaysia.”

In Malaysia, many people face pressure to work overtime. File photo: Reuters
A survey of 6,000 workers across Southeast Asia by Milieu Insight in February indicated that a majority would welcome a shorter work week.

About two-thirds (67 per cent) of respondents – who came from Singapore, Thailand Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines and Indonesia – said a shorter work week would grant them greater work-life balance, while 64 per cent said they would have more time to spend with loved ones. Almost half (48 per cent) said they would have more time to be creative and generate ideas, while 45 per cent said it would increase their productivity.

But some Asian professionals who have had experience working in Western workplaces and in high-intensity regional hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore say they are sceptical about the feasibility of a shortened work week without a sea change in attitudes towards labour rights.

Hongkongers are overworked and miserable in their jobs, survey finds

Singaporean Adrianna Tan, a director of product management in San Francisco, said workers in the United States had more sense of their rights than those in Asia.

“The US is not a worker’s paradise, and certainly nowhere as developed as workers’ rights in Northern Europe, but it’s still better than what I experienced working in Singapore,” she said.

Tan observed that workers in the US had better knowledge of labour policies and they valued work-life balance more deeply than those in Singapore. Unions, which Tan had no experience with in Singapore, were also stronger and more common in American work culture.

Unionised workers strike over unfair labour practices in Boston, Massachusetts. Photo: Bloomberg
Still, the needle has begun to shift for some workers, especially since the rise of remote working during the Covid-19 pandemic has pushed companies to explore flexible modes of working.

PropertyGuru Group in Southeast Asia, which has more than 1,600 employees from 30 nationalities, last year rolled out its ‘Future of work’ programme in Malaysia and Singapore that allowed employees to work in a hybrid environment and choose their working hours. It will expand the scheme across its other Southeast Asian offices once each country has relaxed its coronavirus measures.

The programme also offers options such as a ‘Compressed Work Week’ that lets workers choose between working four days a week or nine days in a fortnight. Employees can work full hours over fewer days with no difference in pay, in accordance to their role requirements and in consultation with their managers. There is also a ‘Part-Time Work’ scheme that allows employees to work fewer days and hours during the week for prorated pay.

What is ‘lying flat’, and why are Chinese officials standing up to it?

Lauren Huntington, Employee Experience Solution Strategist - Southeast Asia, at the US software firm Qualtrics, said employers ultimately needed to realise that “what employees really want and have come accustomed to is the flexibility to adjust their work schedules to fit the demands of their lives”.

“Increasingly, we’re seeing people make career decisions and finding fulfilment in their jobs by working for organisations that truly understand and respond to their needs, and where they feel they belong,” Huntington was quoted as saying in a report accompanying Qualtric’s survey of Singaporean attitudes towards a four-day work week.

The online poll of over 1,000 workers showed that 64 per cent of full-time employees in Singapore would prefer having flexibility in the workplace, much higher than 36 per cent who prefer having one less day to work.