The winter of 1973/1974 was not a happy one for the then British Conservative government led by Prime Minister, Edward Heath. In the wake of the 'Yom Kippur' war, oil was in short supply world-wide and the British government had even prepared petrol ration books in the event of a severe petrol shortage. At that time Britain generated most of its electrical power by coal, so, you would imagine, the British government might have been better placed than many others.

However, there were industrial disputes in the nationalized mining, railway and power generating industries. Essentially the work forces wanted more money and the government said the country could not afford to pay. Higher oil prices were now threatening Britain's weak economy. Heath was already governing with a small majority and like a poker player with a poor hand, decided to call the trade unions' bluff with the introduction of a three-day week.

The whole of the British workforce in factories and offices were ordered to work only three days a week from the beginning of January 1974. Television programmes finished at 22.30 in the hope that the nation would switch the lights out, go to bed and conserve electricity. Traffic was limited to a maximum speed of 100kph. Sales of paraffin lamps boomed as pre-computerized offices prepared to work without electricity for two days a week. Factories closed their gates two days out of five in rotation each week and the stock market tumbled. According to the Finance Minister at the time, Britain faced "the gravest situation by far since the end of the Second World War".

By February 1974 it was clear that neither the government, nor the unions were going to win despite the miners and train drivers striking. Heath was forced into an election, which he narrowly lost to the socialist Labour Party making Harold Wilson Prime Minister for the third time. Labour did exactly the opposite of the Conservatives and gave the striking miners a 35% pay increase to get them back to work. The long-term result of this was that British coal became more expensive and power stations found they could import coal more cheaply from Poland than it could be mined in the UK. The discovery of North Sea oil and gas and the Thatcher years that began at the end of the 1970s started the end to coal mining in Britain.

Most remarkably of all, throughout this dark period of recent British history working only three days a week for just over two months did not adversely affect Britain's industrial output. The country actually produced just as much in three days as it did before and after in five.

Next Saturday is May 1st when we will be celebrating workers' day with a holiday. In Britain they will not. Not because of what happened in 1974, nor in the Thatcher years, nor any other anti-labour policy, but because May 1st is a Saturday. The British think a holiday that takes place on a Saturday is no holiday at all, so they have their 'May Day' on Monday May 3rd.

Move on a few months and you will find that Swiss National Day, August 1st, also falls on a Saturday this year. That will be another day's holiday lost to us. To make matters worse Christmas 2004 falls over a weekend, as of course does New Year. So in total in the twelve months from May 1 2004 to May 1 2005, which falls on a Sunday next year, those working in Switzerland will lose no less than seven full days' holiday.

Surely this is unfair? Will we be paid more or in some way compensated for the loss of these seven days? No! Just as important, will the country benefit from its workforce working seven more days this year without pay? It is very doubtful. The British experience in 1974 points to there being no measurable loss or gain in output when working days were cut from 5 to 3, and that is a dramatic cut of 40%.

This statistic was influential in the decision made in 1978 to change the May 1st holiday in Britain. The decision between remembering a socialist celebration on the correct day and losing a day's holiday was an easy one to make. The bosses were happy because it has less communistic connotations and the workers were happy as their day off was guaranteed. Likewise when other holidays like Christmas and New Year fall on a weekend, the British are given the next week-days as holidays as substitutes. It is a fair, sensible and economically viable way of distributing holidays in these days of stress at the work place.

Over the next 12 months there are approximately 255 working days, if seven of these were taken away for public holidays on the nearest following working days, it would represent a working time loss of less than 3%. The British managed to produce the same output with 40% less working time in 1974, surely then, Switzerland would lose nothing by giving its people 3% more time off over the next 12 months.