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Setting the Record Straight on Working Time in France

Interview with Bertrand Martinot

INTERVIEW - 7 May 2019

Emmanuel Macron’s announcement on April 25, which was seen as a long-awaited response to the yellow vest protest movement, has revived an age-old debate, that of the question of working time in France. In a country marked by the sacrosanct "35-hour work week", such a debate is often emotional and rather ideological while obscuring what should be at the heart of the discussions on the matter: new forms of work, notably under the joint effect of new technologies and the emergence of a knowledge-based society. What are the specificities of France regarding working time? What should be done in order to address the issues raised by new forms of work? Answers with Bertrand Martinot, our Senior Fellow - Apprenticeship, Employment, Professional Training

Why does this question of working time regularly arise in the public debate in France?

To understand this somewhat painful polemic, we must go back to its origin: unlike our neighbours, who have greater confidence in collective bargaining on this subject, the French legislator has always been very interventionist in this matter. The most caricatural example is obviously the "top-down" imposition of the 35-hour work week by Martine Aubry in 2000. The approach was then largely ideological and ignored the economic analysis which holds that work cannot be shared (except by sharing wages of course). It also relied on an assertion, also made by Dominique Strauss Kahn at the time, which proved to be wrong: the 35-hour work week would have been merely an anticipation of a general trend observed in all developed countries towards a reduction in working time. However, this decline stopped in the mid-1990s, as the general slowdown in growth pushed social negotiations to give greater priority to purchasing power, and therefore wages, over the continued increase in leisure time. The 35-hour laws were therefore going totally against the trend. 

If the polemic reappears periodically, it is because the debate has been ideologically based from the beginning, and never appreciated from a pragmatic point of view, the one which really matters to companies and employees. That's why we never really stop talking about it!

Is it true that French employees work less in comparison to other countries?

One cannot stress enough that international comparisons are difficult in this area, given the differences in the definition of "working time" across countries: do we take into account public holidays, and days off, do we consider a typical working day? Are independent workers included in the analysis? If we only consider employees, are we talking about full-time employees only or also part-time employees? Do we examine collective timetables defined by agreements? Shall we include, or not, all overtime actually worked, including unpaid overtime? Are only the market sectors considered or also the non-market sectors? Over which reference period (week, year)? Clearly, many parameters are involved.

The French specificity in terms of working time does not concern, as we have just seen, people in employment, but appears clearly if we calculate the number of hours worked annually by the working-age population (aged 15 to 65 years old).

Basically, based on Eurostat data and data reported by households, the least bad source of comparison, it can be said that French full-time employees work substantially less than the European average (39.1 hours compared to 40.3 on average in the European Union (EU) and 40.1 hours in Germany). The picture changes if we include part-time employees, who are proportionally less numerous in France and who work on average more in a given week. If all employees are taken into account, France is in the EU average (36.3 hours compared to 36.4 hours on average in Europe, 34.3 hours in Germany and even 29.3 hours in the Netherlands, where 50% of employees are part-time).

It should be noted that French executives seem to work more than their European colleagues, which could be explained by the particularly flexible system of day packages, which allows, in France, a large population (more than half of executives are subject to this regime) to free themselves from any time framework.

Overall, the vision of French employees working less than their European counterparts is not supported by the facts. And if this were the case, it is unlikely that it would be of such magnitude that the French economy would be severely penalized.

In fact, the French specificity in terms of working time does not concern, as we have just seen, people in employment, but appears clearly if we calculate the number of hours worked annually by the working-age population (aged 15 to 65 years old). According to this calculation, which is the only relevant one for estimating a possible production deficit in relation to our neighbours, France is clearly at the bottom of the list, along with Italy, Spain and Greece. This unfortunate situation is clearly explained by the low employment rate for young people (few apprentices compared to Northern European countries, few students who combine study and work), the employment rate for 60-64-year-old (21%, compared to 47% in Germany and 58% in Sweden), and last but not least the excessively high level of our unemployment. In other words, our growth potential lies much less in increasing the working time of those who are already working than in putting all those who are not working into work! It is therefore a great pity that the public debate focuses on the first subject, which is, and by far, not the most important.

Shall we still make the 35-hour work week more flexible?

Honestly, I don't really see what more can be done. The Aubry laws, which discouraged the introduction of overtime hours, have been deconstructed stone by stone since 2005. Five successive laws (in France, you have to go step by step and change the law every two years...) have brought all the necessary flexibility. The result is that today it is possible for the company manager to impose overtime within the limit of 220 hours (which is equivalent to a de facto return to 39 hours).

Through collective bargaining, which is now completely decentralized at the company level, they can adjust working hours over a year, and even up to three years (i.e. adapt working time to peaks and lows in activity without even having to pay overtime), increase the overtime quota beyond 220 hours, buy back "RTT days", negotiate a reduction of up to 10% in the overtime premium.... In the case of smaller companies, the agreement can be ratified by referendum. A reduction in the flat-rate charge in companies with less than twenty employees, as well as a tax exemption for overtime hours for employees, also comes into play. In other words, the 35 hours are merely a threshold for triggering overtime, but not a cap!

The result is that today it is possible for the company manager to impose overtime within the limit of 220 hours (which is equivalent to a de facto return to 39 hours).

Of course, none of these "flexibilities" allow employees to work more without increasing their compensation. And that's where the problem lies. In reality, some employers, particularly in Very Small Enterprises, would like to have their employees work more without paying them more, or at least not in proportion. This is illustrated by the very powerful tax cuts introduced under the Sarkozy five-year period, which enabled employers to largely offset the extra costs associated with overtime increases, but which did not increase the number of overtime hours, because employers simply did not ask for them! In short, the real issue today is no longer to make the 35-hour week more flexible, but rather to know whether we are committed to reducing hourly wages, particularly the minimum wage. I highly doubt that it is politically feasible to go down this path... But, in any case, it is in these terms that the debate must be held today, otherwise we will be going in circles.

Is deleting a public holiday a good idea?

France has one more public holiday than the European average: 11 public holidays compared to 10 in Germany, 7 in the United Kingdom, 11 in Sweden and 12 in Italy... It is certain that the accumulation of these days in May is unfortunate, because it somewhat disorganizes production, and that removing one would make sense.

But no one imagines that such a measure would have a significant macroeconomic impact, and I am not sure that the country should be turned upside down for that...! And, above all, we would have to ensure that the abolition of this public holiday does not serve as a pretext for creating an additional tax to levy the additional value added created as a result. In other words, let's not repeat what was done in 2004 with the real-false abolition of Whit Monday as a public holiday and the real (!) creation of a "solidarity contribution" weighing on wages.

How can we come out on top of this controversy over the "35 hours"?

First, we should stop considering the question of working hours in the same terms as in the 1960s, the era of the factory's civilization, with its time clocks, its homogeneous work and its interchangeable and worn-out workers at 50 years old!

With new forms of productive organisation, new technologies and the emergence of a genuine knowledge-based society (where, broadly speaking, the question of adapting and developing skills is a professional survival issue for more and more employees and companies), the question of working time must be raised differently.

In fact, we will increasingly have to deal with grey areas between actual work (in person, under the authority of the manager) and non-work. We are obviously thinking of the thorny issue of disconnection times outside the time and place of work. We could also re-examine the issue of working from home during certain types of sick leave or, for that matter, the abuse of these sick leave. Teleworking is, in a way, part of the subject: while it is obviously actual working time, it includes grey areas (no time clock, no supervision, the possibility of taking time off to pick up your children from school, etc.).

The classic model on which our entire vocational training structure has been built is that of training decided by the employer, financed by the employer and carried out over working time, with obviously continued remuneration by the employer.

It is particularly in the field of vocational training that these "grey areas" between work and non-work should be mentioned. The classic model on which our entire vocational training structure has been built is that of training decided by the employer, financed by the employer and carried out over working time, with obviously continued remuneration by the employer. It is this situation (and the legal limitations imposed on training outside working hours) that makes employees train very little outside working hours in France and, more generally, invest little time and money, letting the employer "prescribe" training for them, while the employees remain relatively passive.

This model must evolve for several reasons. First of all, the recent reform of vocational training reduces the shared resources of vocational training for companies with more than 50 employees. Secondly, the logic of the Personal Training Account (PTA) is to make the employees more autonomous in the choice of their professional development and training path, thus freeing them partly from training during working time. The latter should thus be mainly reserved for training that allows one to remain or evolve in the company. Finally, new modes of e-learning make it possible to train outside the traditional classroom, including at home, whenever you wish, including in the evening or on weekends.

It is therefore necessary to encourage employees to train more outside working hours and to encourage any co-construction of their training project (in money and time) with their employer. To do this, various means could be used: increasing the number of training hours outside working hours that can be mobilized as part of the company's skills development plan (ex-training plan), giving employees the opportunity to invest in their training in "RTT days", in rest hours, establishing profit-sharing and incentive schemes free of tax and social security contributions...

Naturally, these propositions should also apply to the public sector, where working time is still significantly lower than in the private sector. In a context where the government wishes to promote the redeployment of civil servants to the private sector, it is clearly essential to boost training and advice on professional development in the public sphere and to encourage employees to train themselves, much more than at present, and not simply for the purpose of taking exams.

In conclusion, if we want to increase the working time of employees, encouraging the development of training outside working time seems to me to be a more promising way and more adapted to the needs of a modern economy than seeking to forcefully extent working time, a totally illusory solution...!


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