Would you give staff a three-day weekend? Global retailer Uniqlo is giving it a go

Uniqlo is considering introducing a shorter week at its corporate headquarters and at more stores, if its trial goes well.
Bloomberg

Uniqlo is considering introducing a shorter week at its corporate headquarters and at more stores, if its trial goes well.

Fast Retailing, the parent company of global fashion brands Uniqlo, Theory, and J Brand, will offer a four-day work week to about a fifth of its workforce.

About 10,000 full-time employees at Uniqlo's Japan locations will have the option of a three-day weekend in exchange for 10-hour workdays the rest of the week from October. The retailer is also considering introducing a shorter week at its corporate headquarters and at more stores, if this trial goes well.

The perpetual three-day weekend is a fantasy often associated with white-collar workers, who can afford to cut hours. Yet Fast Retailing is offering the perk to its in-store employees with the hope of retaining full-time workers, who often cut down to part time to be with their families or care for elderly parents, the company says. The one possible downside is that workers would have to work Saturday and Sundays to help Uniqlo keep its stores staffed during its busiest times.

The move comes at a time when a few of Japan's corporations are starting to rethink the traditionally arduous workday. About 22 per cent of Japanese workers put in more than 49 hours a week, compared with 16 per cent of Americans, The Guardian reported.  As a reaction to overwork and stress from traditionally long hours, some Japanese companies, including trading house Itochu, have banned late nights.

Many have made the case for more flexibility in hours for workers across industries, but it's unlikely that the four-day work week will become commonplace soon. The four-day work-week is on the rise in the US, but the most visible success stories are at small companies with highly skilled labour.

In a 2014 survey of more than 1000 employers, 43 per cent of companies said they allowed at least some employees to compress the work week, logging longer hours on fewer days, for at least part of the year, up from 38 per cent in 2009. Only 10 per cent, however, of those employers, usually small companies, offer the perk to all their workers, the survey found. A big challenge to the four-day work week is that most of the world operates on a five-day schedule.

Treehouse, a Portland, Oregon, online education company with fewer than 100 employees, has committed to a 32-hour workweek so employees have more time to spend with their families and loved ones. Chief executive Ryan Carson said employee retention was "amazing". Some argue the shorter weeks also help with morale and productivity.

Retention is particularly important to Uniqlo, even for its lowest-skilled workers. Uniqlo puts its new retail employees through two weeks of training, and losing that talent costs the company money. "We feel we have to enrich them," Uniqlo USA chief executive Larry Meyer said in March. "If people are happy, the retention rate is high. If not, the retention rate is low."

Uniqlo has come under fire in the past for worker conditions at its suppliers' factories in China. Following internal investigations, the retailer has promised to take action to ensure "appropriate working conditions" for the people who make its clothing.

A 2011 book, The Glory and Disgrace of Uniqlo by journalist Masuo Yokota claimed that some store managers in Japan were overworked. Uniqlo sued the book's publisher, but the case was dismissed. The company said at the time that it was working to "adopt a strict stance" against unpaid overtime.

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 - Bloomberg

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