Involuntary part-time work declines

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Over the past 20 years, part-time work has been growing at a rapid pace in France, promoted by the government as a potential tool for stemming unemployment while affording the flexibility sought by the employers. Often imposed by employers, part-time work has thus been experienced by many employees involved as 'involuntary'- ie they would prefer to work longer hours. However, research published in October 2001 indicates that since 1998, a change has been observed, in that the proportion of part-time employees stating that they are not satisfied with this kind of employment has clearly fallen. This is probably attributable to the bargaining momentum generated by the law on the 35-hour working week, according to the study.

The boom in part-time work in France over the past 20 years has been tightly linked to the crisis in employment . As early as the early 1980s, regulatory measures were taken to foster the growth of this form of work and thus combat unemployment. Part-time work, frequently associated with the emergence of other 'atypical' forms of employment (fixed-term contracts and temporary agency work), has also represented an opportunity to respond favourably to employers' demands for more flexible use of the labour force. As a consequence, there has been a noticeable increase in the number of employees working part time from the mid-1980s onwards. While at the end of the 1970s, part-time work accounted for only 6% of total employment, this figure now stands at almost 14%.

This phenomenon has operated in a selective manner, not affecting all the sections of the labour force in the same way, with women making up 80% of the part-time workforce. Part-time work is also often a defining characteristic of the lowest-qualified workers re-entering the labour market after unemployment. The increase in the number of the 'working poor' recently highlighted in several studies has confirmed the situation of financial precariousness experienced by those working part time. In 2001, 71.7% of 'poor' employees and 82.8% of 'very poor' employees were working part time. These facts help explain why this type of employment is widely regarded as unsatisfactory.

Recent trends in involuntary part-time work

The National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies (Institut national de la statistique et des études économiques, INSEE) labour force survey (L'enquête emploi), allows trends in 'involuntary' part-time work to be plotted. In this survey, part-time workers are asked if they would prefer to work longer hours. If they answer 'yes', their employment status can then be labelled as 'involuntary' part time, or 'underemployed'.

A survey carried out by the Ministry of Employment's Office for Research, Surveys and Statistics (Direction de l'animation de la recherche, des études et des statistiques, DARES) and published in October 2001 (Premières informations et Premières Synthèses2001, 10, No. 42.2), shows that over a long period, the growth in part-time work went hand-in-hand with a noticeable rise in the number of people stating that they were not satisfied with that form of employment. As the figure below demonstrates, the rate of involuntary part-time work grew substantially over the first half of the 1990s.

Involuntary part-time work, 1990-2001

Notes: Nombre de salariés en milliers = number of employees (1,000s); taux de temps partiel subi = rate of involuntary part-time work; salariés à temps partiel = part-time workers; salariés à temps partiel subi = involuntary part-time workers. Group surveyed: employees covered by Aubry law (35-hour week law) of 19 January 2000.

Source: INSEE labour force survey.

An increasing level of dissatisfaction accompanied the growth of part-time work over the same period, and by 1996, 44% of part-time workers were in involuntary part-time work. The acceleration in the spread of part-time work should be seen against the backdrop of the rapid increase in the number of subsidies for such work afforded to companies by the government after 1992. A study carried out in 1998 by the Economic Advisory Council (Conseil d'analyse économique, CAE) (FR9910111F) identified a causal link between the amount of involuntary part-time work and the state aid distributed to companies to promote part-time work: 'the generous incentives for companies to utilise part-time work approved since 1992 cannot be ruled out as a contributory factor to the growth (in involuntary part-time work)'.

However, the situation has recently changed. Since 1998, two concomitant and probably interrelated trends have been witnessed.

  1. a far more moderate rise in the number of employees working part time than before. As the full-time workforce has increased rapidly in recent times, the proportion of part-time work has fallen, standing at 14.2% in 2001; and
  2. a noticeable drop in the amount of involuntary part-time work. The number of 'underemployed' part-timers remained stable from 1998, then declined substantially between 2000 and 2001, falling by seven percentage points. The proportion of involuntary part-time workers stood at 37% of all part-timers in 2001.

This reduction has resulted from the fact that the employees who wanted to work longer hours have been able to do so thanks to more frequent transitions between involuntary part-time and full-time work. The frequency of this type of change in employment status rose between 1999 and 2000 (at 21%, as opposed to 16.9% between 1998 and 1999).

The downward trend observed in involuntary part-time work may also stem from the process of reducing the working week to 35 hours. The bargaining momentum built up around the implementation of the 35-hour week (FR0007178F) might thus have enabled part-time employees who wanted to work longer hours actually to do so. This, in any case, is the explanation propounded in the DARES study: the reduction in working time, provided it is negotiated, may enable 'the expectations of part-time employees dissatisfied with their hours to be met, increasing chosen part-time work at the expense of involuntary part-time work'.

Commentary

In reality, part-time work has been a demand made virtually exclusively by employers seeking to increase flexibility in working time. Trade unions in France have long been hostile to an increase in part-time work, which has often been presented by employers as an alternative to the reduction in weekly working time across the board. These two forms of the reduction of working time, far from being contradictory, might actually be complementary. This is one of the interesting conclusions to emerge from the DARES survey. Indeed, the increase in involuntary part-time work may have been the product of the state's pro-active regulatory activity in this field. The 35-hour working week seems on the contrary, to show that when part-time work is brought back within the scope of collective bargaining and becomes an issue for negotiation, accommodation between the economic constraints of businesses and the employees' social expectations is possible. (Carole Tuchszirer, IRES)

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