Three-day Weekend Edges Closer to Reality in Israel

Ministers backed legislation this week calling for six long weekends every year, but employers warn that the economy can't afford the extra time off.

People sit, walk and ride bikes on Rothschild Boulevard, Tel Aviv.
Rafael Ben-Ari / Dreamstime

A lazy day in the backyard asleep on a hammock, a long day at the mall to shop and share a cup of coffee, or an outing with the kids to the beach or amusement park. “Never on Sunday” has been the rule in Israel, where the weekend was traditionally Saturday and three decades ago extended to Friday.

Starting next year, however, Israelis may be getting six Sundays off every year. Draft legislation was approved by the ministerial legislative committee on Sunday and was cleared in the first of three votes it needs in the Knesset to become law.

“After years talking about the idea, we have for the first time a practical law that can be put into effect,” said Eli Cohen, the Kulanu lawmaker who was the driving force in bringing the legislation to the Knesset. “The legislation would dramatically change the character of work in Israel and help balance work and family life.”

MK Tzipi Livni (Zionist Union), who voted for the measure, said all Sundays should be days off, which would settle a long-running dispute between secular and religious Israelis about businesses being open and public transportation operating on Saturdays.

“The fact that Sabbath [Saturday] is the day of rest is important and correct – it reflects the Jewish tradition. But because of the Sabbath’s religious nature, it’s difficult for part of the population to use the day for shopping or leisure,” she said. “By making Sundays a rest day we would settle the debate.”

However, not everyone agrees that giving Israelis six long weekends a year is such a good idea.

Israelis work more hours than people do in most other countries belonging to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The average Israel worked 1,853 hours, compared with an OECD average of 1,770. In the Netherlands, the average was 1,420 in 2014, and in Norway it was just two hours longer, while in Switzerland it was 1,568.

Low productivity

But Israelis also produce less when they are on the job. In 2014, the rate for gross domestic product per hour worked in Israel was just $37.30 (adjusted for purchasing power parity), putting it in the bottom third of the 34 OECD countries and just slightly higher than Greece and Portugal.

Shraga Brosh, president of the Manufacturers Association, cited statistics from the government itself that showed the longer weekends would cost the economy about 8 billion shekels ($2 billion) – or 1% of output.

“The result of increased vacation days will be higher prices for products, and poorer labor and business conditions,” Brosh warned this week.

The way the law is structured now would give Israelis one Sunday off every two months, although because other public holidays often fall on Sundays, net number of days off will probably be four. Still, that would reduce the average work week by one hour a week to 42, bringing Israel more into line with OECD levels.

Not everyone gets those days off. People working in retail or in public services would have to work, although they would be entitled to extra pay. How much extra is still being debated, but it would probably be 125% of their base pay for the first two hours and 150% for the rest of the day.

Children would get off from school those Sundays, a critical part of the program as the government has been working to better synchronize the school year with working parents’ schedules. But students wouldn’t get any extra days off; the four Sundays would be taken out of other vacation days.

The original proposal for what is called a long weekend goes back to 2011, when Silvan Shalom proposed 12 Sundays off annually. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, loathe to have a rival get credit for a popular idea, gave the idea to Eugene Kandel, then chairman of the National Economic Council, who came back with the more modest proposal of six, saying 12 would be too costly for the economy.

Supporters of Sundays off, like Histadrut Chairman Avi Nissenkorn, answer the productivity argument by saying the extra time off will make Israelis more productive by being better rested and more content.

Retailers, represented by the federal of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, say the Sundays off will be spent shopping while hoteliers say it will give people more time to take vacations.

Opposition from employers means the process of passing Sundays-off legislation will be protracted and probably not come to the Knesset before its inter session.

After the preliminary vote, the legislation now goes to a committee of ministry directors general who will hammer out the details with employers. In addition, the Education Ministry and the teachers unions have to agree to adjusting the school year.