MOSCOW -- Speaking at the International Labor Conference in Geneva in early June, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was all about the future, envisioning a day when technology would make old professions obsolete and underscoring his country's experience with revolutionary change.
The emergence of a "new paradigm of labor" would offer nearly "unlimited opportunities" for the employment and self-fulfillment of workers, he said. But Medvedev also predicted that "technological progress would lead to the reduction of positions and working hours, and people will have more leisure time."
After telling the Geneva conference that the four-day workweek would someday be "the basis for the social and labor contract," Medvedev returned to Russia and promptly ordered the Labor Ministry to look into the possibility of implementing such a system and to present its findings by September 30, according to the pro-government daily Izvestia.
As that day approaches, however, the idea has evolved a bit. Medvedev's proposal has since been cast as the brainchild of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP), which in an August 13 statement asserted that those European states that have implemented reduced working hours are "at a high level of socioeconomic development" and that studies by the Russian Service for Labor and Employment showed that a shorter workweek was a popular idea.
Tamping Down Expectations
Meeting on August 23 with RSPP head Aleksandr Shokhin, Medvedev described a four-day working week only as a "possibility" and stressed that the nascent idea should not be taken too "literally" just yet.
Others, too, have tamped down expectations or cast the suggestion as misguided or unnecessary.
Aleksei Zubets, head of the Department of Applied Sociology at Moscow's Russian Government Financial University, told RFE/RL's Russian Service that he is unclear what the fuss is about.
"Russia's Labor Code allows for the establishment of the length of the working week by agreement between employers and workers or their representatives and trade unions," he said. "Basically, nothing prevents the unions from going to the employers and agreeing that the workweek will be four days, or even three."
Zubets pointed out that, even in countries where the norm is lower than Russia's standard 40-hour workweek, people usually work five days. And a number of European countries that allow a four-day workweek, he said, increase the length of the working day to up to 10 hours.
"This topic is popular because reducing the working week is a story that the public would approve of," he said, a conclusion backed by a recent poll by Superjob.ru that found 49 percent of working Russians support the idea of moving to a shorter workweek.
But Zubets also mentioned potential negatives and suggested there were bigger fish to fry.
For one thing, Zubets said, introducing a four-day workweek in Russia could lead to a 20-percent reduction in wages, a concern expressed by nearly half of Russian citizens in a separate poll taken shortly after Medvedev's June 11 speech in Geneva.
That survey by the state-backed pollster VTsIOM found that 43 percent of respondents listed reduced wages as a negative consequence of a shorter workweek, and 82 percent said they believed that a shorter workweek would mean less money.
While respondents did see positives -- such as improved health (22 percent) and the ability to spend more time with family (17 percent), advantages similar to those cited in the Superjob survey -- VTsIOM Director Valery Fyodorov summed up the results for TASS by saying that "the prospect of a radical -- by 20 percent -- reduction in the workweek is more frightening than attractive to Russians."
Economist Igor Nikolayev said the proposal distracts from more pressing issues in Russia, including economic ones.
"Any normal person would like to work less and relax more and get paid as much," Nikolayev told RFE/RL. "But from the point of view of the economy, I am negative on this."
'Untimely And Populist'
He said that labor productivity in Russia was one-half to one-third that of most developed countries, and that "there are no miracle solutions."
"If you work less, then you produce less, sell less, and receive less," he concluded. "And then what do you live on? So this measure seems untimely and populist to me."
As "old professions disappear, new ones appear," Medvedev said in Geneva, advising that businesses "have to adjust to new generations of workers."
Pointing out that he was representing a country that "went through one of the most radical revolutions in world history," Medvedev stressed that "Russia knows, based on its own experience, that it is necessary to professionally and in a timely fashion respond to new social challenges."
With the development of new technologies, the home can often be a workplace, he said, remarking that there is "even a category called freelancers" whose "employment goes beyond state borders and national labor markets."
The rights and interests of workers, "not just the demands of corporations and states," must be considered, he said, before he homed in on the four-day workweek as a way to avoid worker burnout and increase productivity.
The Financial University's Zubets said, however, that the idea seemed unrealistic and that he did not see any prospects for its introduction in Russia in the next 20 years.
If Russia really wants to boost worker morale and production, he said, it might want to take an entirely different route.
"If we move, for example, to a six-hour working day, then this will not lead to serious losses for employers, because [now during] these two hours people smoke, surf the Internet, or chat over a cup of tea in the dining room," Zubets said. "But at the same time, people will receive significant additional time to go about their business, family spending time in nature and so on."
"I think a four-day working week is not what we need, but a six-hour working day is a much more promising and interesting direction," he told RFE/RL.