35-hour week agreement signed in the sugar industry

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The employers' organisation for the French sugar industry and three trade unions - CFDT, CFTC and CFE-CGC - signed an agreement on the 35-hour working week on 18 August 1998. The CGT and CGT-FO unions did not sign the deal. Martine Aubry, Minister for Employment and Solidarity, believes that, unlike the text signed in metalworking in July, this agreement is a "good" one.

In May 1998 when the law on the statutory reduction of the working week to 35 hours was passed (FR9806113F), the sugar industry employers' association, Syndicat national des fabricants de sucre (SNFS), denounced (ie terminated) part of its collective agreement with the trade unions. In the opinion of Jerôme de Pelleport, the managing director of the Eridiana Beghin-Say sugar company, "working time is an important part of our collective agreement. The text had become outdated and what is more, incompatible with the law on the 35-hour working week."

Sugar is a small industrial sector, employing 8,000 permanent workers, whose working year is divided into two distinct parts: the "sugar campaign -" ie sugar production - from October to December during the beet harvest; and the maintenance of plants between harvests. After the working time law was promulgated, urgent negotiations took place, leading to the conclusion of a new agreement on 18 August 1998. On the trade union side, the accord was signed by CFDT, CFTC and CFE-CGC, but not by CGT and CGT-FO.

Content of the agreement

The text is presented as a "defensive" agreement - ie one designed to deal with a difficult period for the sugar industry and to prepare for changes in the way sugar is produced. The introduction to the agreement in fact stresses that "in the light of WTO [World Trade Organisation] restrictions, which have resulted in reduced quotas and lower prices," the move to average weekly working time of 35 hours must be accompanied by "significant changes in the way work is organised".

The main points of the agreement are the following:

  • shift workers will work an average of 35 hours per week starting in June 1999 and will retain the traditional benefits associated with the obligations of shiftwork;
  • for non-shift workers, the move to the 35-hour week will be implemented in two phases. On 1 June 1999, the average working week will be cut to 37 hours for non-shift blue-collar workers, white-collar workers and supervisors, falling to 35 hours from 1 January 2000;
  • annualisation of working time will be introduced across the board. Working time will be calculated on the basis of an annual total of 1,586.55 hours. The maximum working week will be set at 48 hours (during the sugar campaign). A minimum of three days must be worked in every week;
  • on pay compensation, the agreement stipulates that the reduction in working time will not result in a cut in minimum pay rates, including those of newly hired workers. The cost of moving to a 35-hour week will be borne jointly by workers and employers. To the extent that the industry has the power to do so, it will freeze minimum pay rates until 1 October 1999; and
  • the agreement does not make explicit reference to employment levels, except defensively in the introduction, which talks of "safeguarding jobs as much as possible".

Reactions

Employers were very satisfied with this agreement, which will allow companies greater control over collective work timetables. Until now, a flexible timetable agreement allowing variations in working time around an average (modulation) had existed. The new agreement, will in the opinion of Mr de Pelleport of Eridiana Beghin-Say, "go further. It will enable the genuine annualisation of working time."

The unions that signed the agreement have also expressed their satisfaction, even if this agreement is not seen as a real "victory."

  • CFDT's sectoral federation for food processing, FGA-CFDT, was satisfied that the reduction in the working week will not be accompanied "by pay cuts but rather by a simple freeze in collectively agreed sectoral minimum rates until October 1999". It was, however, disappointed that the employers had not made a "firm commitment on employment levels." In light of the huge job cuts that have taken place in the industry over the past few years, the union would have liked to see "at least a moratorium on jobs". In the union's view, "this agreement is a compromise and a springboard for company-level negotiations."
  • The CFE-CGC food-processing federation considers the agreement to be satisfactory in its "present form" and underlines that it "will pay careful attention to its implementation."

Reaction from those unions that rejected the agreement are quite hostile.

  • The CGT food processing and forestry federation condemned this agreement which "aims to make workers' jobs more flexible, in particular through the process of annualisation." This union rejects the fact that employers can "change timetables according to workload." The CGT goes on to say that companies will also be able "to make employees work six days a week".
  • The CGT-FO's sectoral federation considers this agreement to be "a sham, reached solely to salvage the collective agreement which had been skilfully denounced by the SFNS". The union went on to say that the agreement did not provide for either the creation or the safeguarding of jobs and introduced maximum flexibility.

The Government sees the sugar accord as a "good agreement." In the view of Martine Aubry, Minister for Employment and Solidarity, unlike the agreement signed in the metalworking sector at the end of July 1998 (FR9808129F) "we have here negotiations that will create jobs and do not engage in the theoretical posturing of a virtual agreement." The Minister was also satisfied that this agreement leaves to agreements in individual companies" what in my opinion, is their due - both the actual organisation [of working time] and the various types of organisation, in particular flexible working time, but also the consequences in terms of employment levels". She added that "redundancies had been planned in this sector. Some planned job cuts can now be cancelled and there will, in certain companies, be job creation."

Commentary

Two different commentaries can be made in light of this agreement.

  1. The agreement came a few weeks after the settlement signed in the metalworking industry by the Union of Metallurgy and Mining Industries (Union des industries métallurgiques et minières, UIMM) and three trade unions. Unlike the earlier deal, the sugar agreement is not in opposition to the spirit of the law on the 35-hour week. Martine Aubry referred to it as "a counter-UIMM agreement". In the context of the apparent struggle between the CNPF employers' confederation and its most combative wing, UIMM, the Government wanted to prove that other sectors of industry could sign "more concrete" and "tangible" agreements. The fact remains, however, that on the eve of the start of negotiations in the textile and construction sectors - where employers have already indicated that they intend to follow the example set by their metalworking colleagues - a great deal of tension still exists between the positions of the Government and that of employers.
  2. Whatever the positions set out by the heads of the metalworking and sugar employers, these agreements do have common points. Their main aim is not to create jobs but rather to concentrate on greater flexibility in working time (intensive use of overtime for the metalworking sector and across-the-board annualisation in the sugar industry). They are both framework agreements designed to be used as guidelines for companies. The important issue of how these agreements are to be implemented will be decided in company-level bargaining. (Alexandre Bilous, Ires)
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