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Source: Amwaj Media

Apr 27, 2023

Will Iran adopt a new weekend?

BY Bijan Khajehpour

Low efficiency has long been a key challenge to productivity in the Iranian business community. Among the critical topics for Iranian enterprises is the high number of public holidays. In fact, Iran has 26 public holidays, consisting of national and religious occasions, most of which are based on the Islamic lunar calendar. This is while the country is organized based on the Iranian Solar Hijri calendar.

The business community complains that public holidays, especially those that shift due to the diversity of calendars, put pressure on resource planning and undermine efficiency in businesses. Against this backdrop, there have in recent years been some adjustments to public holidays, but the situation remains tense. This is especially as businesses and schools can be ordered to close due to air pollution, climate-related reasons and other issues.


Underlying factors

The government’s justification for the high number of public holidays is that officially the country only has Friday as the weekend. In fact, one comparative study shows that if public holidays and weekends are calculated together, then Iran has much less days off than developed economies. The officially mandated six-day working week—running from Saturday to Thursday—has been applied to schools, banks and government offices. This is while the majority of enterprises, including public companies, tend to work from Saturday to Wednesday.

This means that Iranian businesses, especially those working closely with international companies, are faced with a four-day disconnect in communication. The Iranian weekend of Thursday-Friday is followed by the international weekend of Saturday-Sunday. To reduce the impact of this disconnect, many local subsidiaries of international companies have introduced a working week running from Sunday to Thursday without official objections, as long as the companies compensate their staff for the weekend hours allocated to work.

As a benchmark, most Islamic countries in the region have introduced a pragmatic solution and declared Friday-Saturday as their weekend. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has even shifted to the internationally established weekend and introduced a four-and-a-half day work week. While this has angered arch-conservative clerics in the country, it has aligned the working days of the Emirati business community with international norms.

Interestingly, a new push has emerged from the Iranian business community to adjust the realities in Iran. Head of the Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industry, Mines and Agriculture (ICCIMA), Gholamhossein Shafei, stated in an interview that ICCIMA was in talks with senior clerics to secure their approval of a shift of the official Iranian weekend, defining the working week as running from Sunday to Thursday. This would keep the day off in Islam, Friday, free but increase the overlap of working days with international companies by one day.


New method to address an old issue

The current attempt to regulate the weekend between the government and the parliament is the seventh such initiative since 2016. In the past, representatives of the business community have lobbied with the authorities to officially change the working week to facilitate collaboration with international companies. However, the previous campaigns failed to introduce the legal changes needed.

What is different this time is a motion in the parliament that proposes the change through a legal amendment. MP Mohsen Pirhadi recently pointed to a potential shift, stating, “In order to reduce the cost of increasing the country's official holidays, we should standardize the holidays as much as possible in accordance with international norms.” He elaborated, “An approach should be adopted that does not weaken the country's economic cycle and does not undermine the potential benefit from international exchanges and transactions.”

In the meantime, according to another lawmaker, Abolfazl Aboutorabi, the government is preparing a bill to declare a five-day working week from Saturday to Wednesday, completely disregarding what the business community has been campaigning for. Aboutorabi stated, “In 1998, at the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting, it was agreed that Islamic countries should declare Saturdays instead of Thursdays as part of the weekend.

Now, most of the Islamic countries have reduced the difference between their weekend holidays and the rest of the world by closing on Friday and Saturday.” Of note, the Organisation of Islamic Conference in 2011 changed its name to the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

The government’s motivation for the official shortening of the week is purely cost-saving as it will be able to reduce the cost of keeping schools and public offices open on Thursdays. 

The ongoing legal process is geared to amend Article 87 of the so-called “Law on management of public services” on weekly working hours for civil servants. The amendment has reduced working hours from 44 to 42.5 per week and 170 per month. Notably, the legislation also allows organizations to distribute working hours between weekdays.

Furthermore, it states, “All executive bodies, including national and provincial headquarters, with the exception of operational units of service centers such as welfare-related units, banks, hospitals, health-treatment centers, sports facilities, and military, law enforcement, and security units, are required to set their working hours on five days a week.”

The initiative in the parliament is using the fact that the text contains no reference to either a specific day or declares Friday and Saturday as the official weekend. However, it is expected that the government will insist on declaring Thursdays as the official part of the weekend.


Looking ahead

In a number of fields, and especially considering the potential increase in domestic tourism and overall impact on efficiency, it does not make a difference which day will be defined as the weekend. However, mindful of the overlap of working days between Iran and the rest of the world, it will be important to declare Thursday as a working day. According to Valiollah Afkhamirad, head of the governmental Trade Promotion Organization, "A continuation of the status quo will mean that Iran will not be able to materialize its potential in international trade."

In his view, “If we close Saturdays instead of Thursdays, we align our holidays with other countries, which will lead to more success in world trade, especially better conditions with our neighbors."

Compared to the previous instances, the legal amendments have been made, but the weekend days have not been finalized. For the government to insist that Thursdays should not become a working day would show a disregard for the interests of the business community.

As in many other instances, political leaders are too focused on their ideology of not succumbing to western values. However, the more pragmatic business elite and moderate lawmakers are pushing back. The outcome of this debate will indicate whether Iran’s pragmatic technocracy can trump the ideological power centers. Only time will tell the result.

Bijan Khajehpour is the managing partner at Eurasian Nexus Partners - a Vienna-based international consulting firm.

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