By Colin Foster
France’s right wing government plans to weaken and undermine, perhaps eventually repeal, France’s law setting a 35 hour working week, which was passed by the Socialist Party government in 1997.
Recent articles by the French Marxist economist Michel Husson* examine the background.
France’s right wing claims that the 35 hour week created no new jobs, but only brought extra costs for the employers. In fact, “the shorter working week has created between 350,000 and 500,000 jobs: this range is the outcome of the available research**. The real question is why a shortening of the working week by about 10% (from 39 to 35 hours) did not create 1.5 million jobs…”
That is to do with the way the shorter working week was introduced. “The first retreat by the left government was to abandon any demand for new hirings in proportion to the cut in the working week. The Robien law, voted through by the right in 1996, introduced a facility for public subsidies to companies if they created 10% extra jobs after cutting the working week by 10%.
“With the first Aubry [left government] law, the requirement for extra jobs had fallen to 6%, and it disappeared completed with the second Aubry law.
“The bosses took advantage of this to ‘reorganise’ work to their convenience, intensifying it, ‘annualising’ it [i.e. reducing the work week to an average of 35 hours over the year - but that might be 45 hours one week, 25 the next], in short by making it more flexible.
“The result can be seen very clearly in the statistics: the movement to a 35 hour week was accompanied by a veritable leap of about 5% in hourly labour productivity.”
In the public sector, the government moved to a 35 hour week without changing workforce numbers”. For small companies with less than 20 employees, the introduction of the 35 hour week was eventually put off indefinitely.
The net effect, according to Husson, was that women and manual workers, on the whole, lost out, while managerial grades and more skilled workers in more dynamic companies benefited.
The lesson is that such shortenings of the working week should be across the board; that they should be accompanied by an obligation to hire new workers in proportion to the cut in hours; and they should also be accompanied by strict control over overtime and a requirement that it be paid at very high rates.
Now the French bosses want to do more than get rid of the 35 hour week. They want to suppress the whole idea of a legally limited working week, which according to Guillaume Sarkozy, no.2 of the French bosses’ federation Medef, is “a nonsense”.
For a start, the government proposes to extend the legal limit of overtime from 180 to 220 hours a week - thus bringing the total legal working week back to 40 hours - and to extend the loophole which allows small companies to pay the first four hours of overtime at 110% rather than the general 125%.
It also proposes to allow companies and branches of industry to negotiate “voluntary” extra overtime above the normal limit.
Nevertheless, opinion surveys show that only 18% of French workers want to work longer hours than they do at present, and 69% support the unions’ efforts to defend the 35 hour week.