Iran’s Calendar in dire need of Reform

By Maziar Motamedi for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iran Business News.

Last month, Iran’s education minister said he intends to create a two-week “winter holiday” before the new Iranian school year starts this fall. In exchange, students will start their academic year two weeks earlier. The goal is to create a new holiday period that could boost local tourism at a time of year when business is usually slow.

If implemented, the move will particularly benefit Iran’s southern provinces, as families will be incentivized to visit the warmer climates in winter rather than make later trips to the more popular Caspian Sea provinces in the north. It would also bring a much-needed boost to employment and production in the south.

However, the scheme is but a small portion of what needs to be done to address challenges created by the country’s calendar. The re-imposition of tough US sanctions following President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal has provided an added and strong incentive to boost efficiency in the economy, including steps to more closely align Iran with international work-week norms.

Many if not most Iranians believe that Iran has more holidays compared to other countries, especially given the large number of pre-Islamic as well as religious holidays. However, this is a major misperception. Iran has 24 official holidays — higher than China’s 18 and 20 in more than 50 countries across Europe and the Americas. However, since only Fridays are considered an official weekend, Iranians have a total of 76 days off every year. In comparison, two-day weekends — the norm in most developed economies — add up to 104 days off per year, in addition to official holidays.

The administration of moderate President Hassan Rouhani is in favor of adding a day off each week, an idea several officials have advocated — especially those within the Tourism Organization since the local tourism industry would be a major beneficiary. A proposal to this end has found its way to the parliament as well, but has remained dormant due to Iran’s bureaucracy and because the country is battling so many problems deemed more urgent.

There are many angles to the issue of calendar reform, with various economic, social, cultural and even religious ramifications. Abbas Argon, a senior member of the Tehran Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture (TCCIMA), believes that the main negative consequence of the long work week in Iran is reduced work efficiency.

“Just clocking in at work is not the issue here. What matters is that we increase the efficiency of our workforce,” he told Al-Monitor. “We should be after increasing motivation to do good work.”

In addition, the discrepancy between the Iranian work week and those of many developed economies means that the office hours of businesses and government institutions align only on Monday through Wednesday, causing endless obstacles such as delays in correspondence. At present, Thursdays are semi-holidays and all government ministries and their affiliated entities and companies, in tandem with schools, are closed. Banks are open only until around noon, and many private businesses usually choose to close shop earlier than usual.

If Iran does introduce an additional day off to conform to the international norm of a five-day work week, its total number of holidays will exceed that of most countries, presenting a conundrum. For instance, since many of Iran’s current holidays are religious in nature, there will be resistance on the part of the clergy to the elimination of at least some of the existing holidays. Some steps to this end have already been taken. About two years ago, the Iran Chamber of Commerce, Industries, Mines and Agriculture (ICCIMA) commenced negotiations with clerics on this matter.

But Argon says the religious aspect of the Iranian calendar does not necessarily need to be seen as a barrier. “In my opinion, we must work harder during religious ‘eids’ and not declare them as days off.”

As the main representatives of the private sector, ICCIMA and TCCIMA have been spearheading efforts to make weekends longer. The latter formed a committee through its in-house tourism commission in July 2016 and presented its plan to the government two months later. Meanwhile, its members have repeatedly called for a five-day work week to be instituted.

Albert Boghossian, an economist and university professor, lists a boost to tourism as the main boon of an initiative to alter the calendar. “The goal here is to increase people’s free time so that they can travel more often and improve local tourism,” he told Al-Monitor. “From this perspective, no harm will come to national production and the country’s economy,” despite what some critics have said.

But even if the two-day weekend were to materialize, there is the question of which day should be added to it. Of the 114 countries that were listed in a recent study in terms of official holidays, only Iran, Afghanistan and Djibouti have Friday as their only official day off. In light of Friday’s religious significance in Islam, Fridays and Saturdays form weekends in almost all other Muslim nations, including Iran’s neighbors. As such, a logical choice would be Saturday, said both Argon and Boghossian.

“Thursdays and Fridays are practically off days in Iran at the moment, while Saturdays and Sundays are holidays in most other countries,” Argon said. “We must go about this in a way that would maximize our interactions through coordination with the holidays of other countries.”

Piecing together all pieces of the puzzle, a clear image of one step that needs to be taken to aid the country’s struggling economy emerges, especially with US sanctions around the corner. Yet progress on calendar reform continues to drag due to a lack of coordination and insight into its importance.

But all is not in vain. It is thought that things will likely accelerate when and if the proposal to turn the Tourism Organization into a ministry is cleared by parliament. The general outlines of this proposal were approved in May, but it is unclear how long it will take lawmakers to ratify its details.

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