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UK companies to trial four-day workweek

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The Pressure Drop brewery in north London is one of 60 UK companies taking part in the four-day week trial
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Louis Bloomsfield inspects the kegs of beer at his brewery in north London, eagerly awaiting June, when he will get an extra day off every week.

The 36-year-old brewer plans to use the time to get involved in charity work, start a long-overdue course in particle physics, and spend more time with family.

He and colleagues at the Pressure Drop brewery are taking part in a six-month trial of a four-day working week, with 3,000 others from 60 UK companies.

The pilot — touted as the world’s biggest so far — aims to help companies shorten their working hours without cutting salaries or sacrificing revenues.

Similar trials have also taken place in Spain, Iceland, the United States and Canada. Australia and New Zealand are scheduled to start theirs in August. 

Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, a programme manager at 4 Day Week Global, the campaign group behind the trial, said it will give firms “more time” to work through challenges, experiment with new practices and gather data.

Smaller organisations should find it easier to adapt, as they can make big changes more readily, he told AFP.

Pressure Drop, based in Tottenham Hale, is hoping the experiment will not only improve their employees’ productivity but also their well-being.

At the same time, it will reduce their carbon footprint.

The Royal Society of Biology, another participant in the trial, says it wants to give employees “more autonomy over their time and working patterns”.

Both hope a shorter working week could help them retain employees, at a time when UK businesses are confronted with severe staff shortages, and job vacancies hitting a record 1.3 million. 

– Not all rosy –

Pressure Drop brewery’s co-founder Sam Smith said the new way of working would be a learning process.

“It will be difficult for a company like us which needs to be kept running all the time, but that’s what we will experiment with in this trial,” he said.

Smith is mulling giving different days off in the week to his employees and deploying them into two teams to keep the brewery functioning throughout. 

When Unilever trialled a shorter working week for its 81 employees in New Zealand, it was able to do so only because no manufacturing takes place in its Auckland office and all staff work in sales or marketing.

The service industry plays a huge role in the UK economy, contributing 80 percent to the country’s GDP.

A shorter working week is therefore easier to adopt, said Jonathan Boys, a labour economist at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. 

But for sectors such as retail, food and beverage, healthcare and education, it’s more problematic.

Boys said the biggest challenge will be how to measure productivity, especially in an economy where a lot of work is qualitative, as opposed to that in a factory.

Indeed, since salaries will stay the same in this trial, for a company to not lose out, employees will have to be as productive in four days as they are five.

Yet Aidan Harper, author of “The Case for a Four Day Week”, said countries working fewer hours tend to have higher productivity.

“Denmark, Sweden, the Netherlands work fewer hours than the UK, yet have higher levels of productivity,” he told AFP. 

“Within Europe, Greece works more hours than anyone, and yet have the lowest levels of productivity.”

– ‘Hiring superpower’ –

Employees in the UK work roughly 36.5 hours every week, against counterparts in Greece who clock in upwards of 40 hours, according to database company Statista. 

Phil McParlane, founder of Glasgow-based recruitment company 4dayweek.io, says offering a shorter workweek is a win-win, and even calls it “a hiring superpower”.

His company only advertises four-day week and flexible jobs.

They have seen the number of companies looking to hire through the platform rise from 30 to 120 in the past two years, as many workers reconsidered their priorities and work-life balance in the pandemic. 

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Japan’s Kirin offloads Myanmar beer business over coup

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Myanmar Beer boasted a local market share of nearly 80 percent in 2018
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Japanese drinks giant Kirin said Thursday it has agreed to a buyout of its shares in a Myanmar joint venture with a junta-linked conglomerate, completing its exit from the market over the 2021 coup.

Days after the putsch in February 2021, Kirin announced it would end its joint venture Myanmar Brewery with the junta-linked MEHPCL, saying it was “deeply concerned by the recent actions of the military in Myanmar”.

But it struggled to disentangle itself from the secretive conglomerate and contested a bid by MEHPCL to dissolve the joint venture as it feared liquidation proceedings would not be fair.

Kirin said Thursday that a share buyback agreement worth about 22.4 billion yen ($164 billion) had been reached to transfer its 51 percent stake back into the subsidiary, ending the joint venture.

“We are relieved to settle this matter within the announced deadline by the most appropriate means among several options,” Yoshinori Isozaki, Kirin’s president and CEO, said in a statement.

According to figures published by Kirin in 2018, Myanmar Brewery — whose beverages include the ubiquitous Myanmar Beer brand — boasted a market share of nearly 80 percent.

But Kirin had been under pressure even before the coup over its ties to the military, and launched an investigation after rights groups called for transparency into whether money from its joint venture had funded rights abuses.

Investors piled into Myanmar after the military relaxed its iron grip in 2011, paving the way for democratic reforms and economic liberalisation.

They poured money into telecoms, infrastructure, manufacturing and construction projects — before the coup upended the democratic interlude and damaged the economy.

But a raft of foreign companies have exited the market since the military seized power from Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, including oil giants TotalEnergies and Chevron and Norwegian telecoms operator Telenor.

Kirin’s Myanmar business generated 32.6 billion yen ($240 million at today’s rates) in revenue in 2019-20, less than two percent of the firm’s annual sales.

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Asian markets mostly down but China data offers some light

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Most Asian markets fell with traders fearing that hefty rate hikes to rein in soaring inflation will spark a recession
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Most Asian markets fell again Thursday as traders fear that hefty rate hikes to rein in soaring inflation will spark a recession, though a slight improvement in Chinese data did provide some cheer.

The rally enjoyed across the world last week appears to have given way to nervousness about the economic outlook, while the Ukraine war continues to sow uncertainty.

The surge in inflation to multi-decade highs has forced central banks to swiftly tighten pandemic-era monetary policies, dealing a hefty blow to equities, particularly tech firms who are susceptible to higher borrowing costs.

The Federal Reserve has already sharply lifted rates and is expected to announce a second successive 75-basis-point lift next month.

There had been hope that policymakers would ease off their hikes as economies show signs of slowing, but analysts say some officials are less concerned about a recession than letting prices run out of control.

Fed boss Jerome Powell this month admitted the moves could lead to a contraction, suggesting he was not averse to it.

On Wednesday, Cleveland Fed chief Loretta Mester said was keen to see the benchmark rate hit 3-3.5 percent this year and “a little bit above four percent next year”.

“There are risks of recession,” she told CNBC. “We’re tightening monetary policy. My baseline forecast is for growth to be slower this year.”

The threat of an extended period of elevated inflation and rate hikes has left traders weary, and markets in the red.

While Wall Street ended on a tepid note Wednesday it was unable to bounce back from the previous day’s plunge.

And Asia also struggled, with Tokyo, Sydney, Seoul, Singapore, Taipei, Manila and Wellington all down.

– China support hope –

However, Hong Kong and Shanghai edged up. That came after official figures showed a forecast-beating improvement in China’s services sector thanks to the easing of painful Covid-19 restrictions in major cities including Shanghai and Beijing.

The non-manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index surged to 54.7 points in June, the first time it has been above the 50-point growth mark since February.

The manufacturing gauge hit 50.2, which was also its first time in growth since February and provided some hope that the world’s number two economy could be picking up after the pain caused by lockdowns.

“As the situation of domestic epidemic prevention and control continued to improve and a package of policies… to stabilise the economy was implemented at a quicker pace, the overall recovery of our country’s economy has accelerated,” National Bureau of Statistics statistician Zhao Qinghe said.

And SPI Asset Management strategist Stephen Innes added that the government and People’s Bank of China could now have some room to provide growth support.

“With (consumer price) inflation low in China relative to its peers, there is plenty of scope for monetary and fiscal conditions to loosen in the second half of the year, supporting activity,” he said in a note.

Crude fluctuated after dropping on Wednesday as data showed demand in the United States appeared to be softening even as the driving season gets under way, and as recession fears begin to kick in.

“The higher price environment appears to be doing its job when it comes to demand,” Warren Patterson, of ING Groep NV, said.

The drop comes as OPEC and other major producers including Russia prepare to meet on their output agreement, with most predicting they are unlikely to open the taps further.

“I am not expecting any surprises from the group. I would imagine it will be a fairly quick meeting,” Patterson said.

– Key figures at around 0300 GMT –

Tokyo – Nikkei 225: DOWN 0.9 percent at 26,561.05 (break)

Hong Kong – Hang Seng Index: UP 0.3 percent at 22,048.60

Shanghai – Composite: UP 0.8 percent at 3,387.96

West Texas Intermediate: UP 0.2 percent at $109.95 per barrel

Brent North Sea crude: DOWN 0.4 percent at $115.77 per barrel

Dollar/yen: DOWN at 136.56 yen from 136.66 yen Wednesday

Euro/dollar: UP at $1.0456 from $1.0444 

Pound/dollar: UP at $1.2139 from $1.2119

Euro/pound: DOWN at 86.13 pence from 86.15 pence

New York – Dow: UP 0.3 percent at 31,029.31 (close)

London – FTSE 100: DOWN 0.2 percent at 7,312.32 (close)

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Services, manufacturing rebound in China after Covid curbs eased

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Business activity in industries severely hit by the pandemic, such as air travel, picked up in June, according to China's National Bureau of Statistics
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China’s factory and services activity picked up in June, official data showed Thursday, fuelled by the easing of Covid-19 restrictions in major cities such as Shanghai and Beijing.

The non-manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI), a key gauge of activity in the world’s second-biggest economy, defied expectations and surged to 54.7 points in June after three months of sluggish performance.

It was the first time since February that the reading was above the 50-point mark separating growth from contraction, and this marked an improvement from the reading of 47.8 in May.

“As the situation of domestic epidemic prevention and control continued to improve and a package of policies… to stabilise the economy was implemented at a quicker pace, the overall recovery of our country’s economy has accelerated,” National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) senior statistician Zhao Qinghe said in a statement.

In particular, business activity in industries severely hit by the pandemic such as rail and air transport picked up in June, the statement said.

Manufacturing PMI rose to 50.2 points in June — in line with analyst expectations — up from 49.6 in May.

As work resumed after Covid lockdowns, production and demand in the sector picked up and delivery times improved, according to the NBS.

China is the only major economy still pursuing a zero-Covid approach of eliminating outbreaks as they emerge, using snap lockdowns and mass testing.

While the country is shortening quarantine times for new international arrivals, President Xi Jinping warned Wednesday that China “would have faced unimaginable consequences” had it adopted a herd immunity or hands-off approach, signalling the government would persist with its current policy.

The approach has taken a harsh toll on the economy, with shops and factories forced to stop operations and supply chains strained.

“It is taking time for production to return to normal,” said Moody’s Analytics in a note this week.

“Logistics remain under pressure; large ports are seeing bottlenecks and some factories are slowing production because of worker shortages.”

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