French bid to 35-hour workweek

/ Source: The Associated Press

French lawmakers effectively abolished the country’s 35-hour workweek Tuesday by allowing employers to increase working hours — and pay — as the country struggles with high unemployment and stagnating living standards.

In a final vote, the National Assembly approved a government-backed bill permitting employers to negotiate deals with staff to increase working time by 220 hours a year in return for better pay.

The bill effectively clears the way for the gradual erosion of the 35-hour week, a flagship policy of the former Socialist-led government that gave many people more time off but added to concerns about France’s declining global competitiveness.

The shorter workweek was introduced on a voluntary basis in 1998 and made compulsory two years later in a bid to force employers to hire more people. But France’s current 10 percent jobless rate is testament to the policy’s failure to generate the promised millions of new jobs.

The National Assembly, controlled by French President Jacques Chirac’s conservatives, approved the new law 350-135. It does not formally abolish the 35-hour workweek but allows employers to offer staff extra working hours at a higher rate of pay.

It also enables workers to sell part of their holiday entitlement back to their employers or put it toward training or early retirement.

In order to apply the changes, however, companies will have to break away from their broad sector-wide agreements with unions — unchanged by the new law — and negotiate deals with their own staff representatives.

This means the effects of the reform will not be seen for some time.

Any such initiatives also could prove unpopular in France’s present economic climate. Almost 1 million people participated in nationwide strikes and demonstrations earlier this month to protest the change to working time, as well as other threats to workers’ benefits and public sector pay.

Many French workers have become accustomed to taking longer holidays and regular weekdays off under the 35-hour law, and a recent survey by polling agency CSA showed that 56 percent of salaried employees oppose the bill.

However, jobseekers, retirees and unskilled workers approved of the change.

Last year, a parliamentary committee reported that the 35-hour week cost France more than $13 billion a year, casting doubt on a labor ministry study that suggested it had created 350,000 jobs between 1998 and 2002.

Some also argued that the shorter week hurt living standards because employers froze salaries to make up for lost labor.

According to a 2003 OECD survey of 25 industrialized countries, only Norwegian and Dutch employees worked less time each year than the French, who worked an average 1,431 hours. German workers put in 1,446 hours, British 1,673 hours, Americans 1,792 hours and Koreans 2,390 hours.