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Fat chance of Slim's short week working

IF ONLY one of the richest men in the world and one of Scotland's doughtiest campaigning groups for the poor could agree on something.

Well, this news just in, brothers and sisters: they can, and they do.

Both Carlos Slim and Common Weal support a shorter working week. We can talk about actual hours, not to mention other ideas such as later retirement, further down this page, screen or parchment scroll (for those of you standing by the mercat cross in rural areas). To do so now would doubtless introduce an early note of discord.

But, for now, put your feet up (if at home or work) and harken to the words of Fatcat Slim. The Mexican tycoon's bulging wallet contains $80 billion dollars, about the same as that of Bill Gates. Indeed, they're routinely referred to as the two richest men in the world.

So when Carlos calls at a business conference in yonder Paraguay for a three-day working week, the world sits up and takes notice. One of the first things it notices is that there's a catch. He's talking about 10 or 11-hour days. But, as I say, we can quibble about the details later.

Slim's fluffier rhetoric, meanwhile, can get us all holding hands together and singing Kumbaya. "With three work-days a week, we would have more time to relax, for quality of life," quoth he, adding: "Having four days [off] would be very important to generate new entertainment activities and other ways of being occupied."

Off? Relax? Entertainment? What can it all mean? Is this man a communist? Not in the technical sense. He's the CEO of communications company Telmex and also head of the mining outfit Minera Frisco. He didn't get where he is today by selling Socialist Worker in the Chihuahuan Desert.

At this juncture, I want to slow the pace of my narrative with some cogitation. So fetch yourself another vat of sherry as I fiddle with my thoughts. Here's one now: it's amazing how, with all the technological and sociological changes of the last century, hardly anything has changed in our work patterns.

Fair enough, a few holidays here and there, but the basic principle remains the same: you live to work. Is that likely to change in the foreseeable future? Certainly not in UK Limited (I choose the word advisedly). What of Scotland after Yes? I doubt it. Great creativity and imagination have been unleashed, particularly among the intelligent young, but at suit level it'll pretty much be steady as she goes. Has to be really. You're dealing with the most timorous folk in the world, corralled by vicious Rottweilers patrolling public opinion. You can't afford to frighten the former or offer meat to the latter.

Any leftfield thinking would fit the "land of milk and honey" trope trotted out relentlessly and exclusively by the cynical Better No' brigade, along with their Braveheart obsession and "proud Scot but" kailyard ethnicity.

Nobody in the independence movement mentions Braveheart or ethnicity, except occasionally in derision, but some indulge in leftfield thinking, which is just to say looking ahead and trying out ideas.

Principal among these practical thinkers is Common Weal, visionary arm of the Jimmy Reid Foundation, which isn't as communist as Comrade Carlos — it wants a four-day week. But that's amounting to 30 hours, and it ain't pie in the sky or fajitas in the firmament either.

They've outlined a 10-year programme, starting with public sector workers and bringing private unfortunates on board thereafter. Both Weal and wealthy Mexican speak of no-one having to be unemployed, and note the poor long-term productivity of the overworked.

But when to stop work? Mr Slim says current retirement ages come from a time of lower life expectancies. He advocates we work till 70 or 75. Which would be fine if employers would offer anybody over 50 a job. But they don't, because experience and wisdom in the workforce only lead to trouble.

We'd be wise to think of the organisational implications of a shorter working week for small businesses. But, as I'm sure Mr Slim, supplied with a carefully doctored translation, would agree: where there's a Weal there's a way.

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