Laboratoires Boiron, France: Towards a balanced flexibility
Laboratoires Boiron, a French group that produces and distributes homeopathic remedies, has implemented a policy for greater working flexibility. By means of several collective agreements, the organisation has sought to strike a balance between the interest of the company and the needs of the workers. Collective bargaining within the company has often anticipated the evolution of French legislation – for instance, in the area of working time reduction.
Laboratoires Boiron is an international French group, founded in 1932, that produces and distributes homeopathic remedies. The group’s subsidiaries focus mainly on the European market. In 2005, the group merged with Dolisos, another producer of homeopathic remedies. As of 31 December 2005, the group employed 3,750 employees, 75% of them women, and more than 96 % employed in Europe. Social dialogue is very significant in the company: 25 agreements have been concluded over the past 30 years at company level. The merger with Dolisos has required negotiations between management and trade unions in order to harmonise the statutes of Boiron’s employees and former Dolisos employees. Five trade unions are present at company level: the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT), the Force ouvrière (FO) , the French Christian Workers' Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC) and the French Managerial Staff’s Confederation (Confédération Française de l’Encadrement, CFE-CGC) . Rate of union density is probably less than 10 % of the workforce, which seems paradoxical, given the positive climate of social dialogue in the company.
Description of the initiative
For 25 years, Laboratoires Boiron has had a working time policy. It is important to note that the different measures in its policy are based on an agreement on wages and working time that was concluded in 1979. This agreement sets out the conditions of profit sharing within the company: half of the profits resulting from productivity improvements are distributed to the employees, through a range of mechanisms. Measures related to working time that have financial consequences for the company are thus financed thanks to the provisions of this agreement. This is particularly the case for a reduction in working time to 35 hours per week. Generally speaking, the agreement allows the company to finance its social policy. Working time policy itself is based on four different collective agreements.
The first is an agreement, concluded in 1976 and amended in 1999, that deals with preparing for retirement. This agreement allows workers aged 54 years and over to progressively reduce their working time in agreement with their local manager without any lowering of their wages.
The second is an agreement related to flexibility in working hours. According to this agreement, concluded in 1978, each employee is free to choose their working hours in compliance with the working hours of their unit. The system relies on trust in the workforce: there is no ‘timekeeper’ at the workplace; instead, workers record their own hours worked each day.
The third agreement, concluded in 1991, relates to part-time work. Each full-time worker, with at least six months seniority, is entitled to ask their employer to switch to working part time. The employee’s request has to be compatible with the departmental needs if it is to be accepted. All part-time work arrangements are assessed annually, in order to check that they still suit both parties.
The fourth agreement, concluded in 1998, relates to the reduction of the working week, to 35 hours per week. This agreement was one of the first concluded in France after the working time legislation of 13 June 1998 entered into force (it is worth noting that companies were not legally obliged to reduce working time in 1998). Working time reduction applies to all employees. The agreement has also created working time accounts in the company. The working time of managers was reduced by awarding them 47 half-days off.
The use of overtime is rare in Laboratoires Boiron. All the company measures to reduce working time are interlinked: flexibility in working hours is thus necessary because the working week is shorter than the opening hours of the different units, especially those dealing with distribution.
Flexibility is built into the working time organisation resulting from these agreements: for instance, the agreement dealing with working time flexibility is negotiated every three years. In addition, due to the recent merger with Dolisos, some agreements have been renegotiated in order to harmonise the staff regulations. For managers, the new provisions institute an increase in working time, and therefore of wages: managers will now work 213 days per year and have 30 half-days off per year, instead of 47.
Social dialogue forms the basis of all current measures. Each unit has its own works council; each unit-level works council is represented at national level through a central works council (comité centrale d’entreprise, CCE). When a measure is proposed, a working group is set up within the CCE; this working group includes management, company-level trade unions representatives, members of the CCE and, depending on the topic discussed, some employees and local managers. Collective agreements are then signed at national level by both trade union representatives and CCE members. The majority of agreements signed, particularly those dealing with working time organisation, are framework agreements: this gives each unit the opportunity to adapt the framework to its particular situation.
Since its founding in 1929, Laboratoires Boiron has remained (despite its expansion) a family company. This allows the company to operate according to a philosophy in keeping with the principles of homeopathy: it has always been the company’s wish to find a balance between financial and social concerns. The personal involvement of the company’s chairpersons is thus an important element in understanding the policies it implements. Social concerns are particularly evident in the forms of work organisation that the company has selected – forms that which explicitly aim to reconcile flexibility and workers’ interests. The company’s efficiency depends mainly on the efficiency of the workforce, so this choice is also a rational one: for instance, the freedom to switch from full-time to part-time work was granted in recognition of the needs of workers’ needs – particularly relevant in light of the fact that 77% of the workforce are women. The same applies to the measures that the company has implemented to reduce working time.
The most interesting feature of the company’s initiative is the importance of social dialogue – in particular, collective bargaining. Works councils have been set up in each unit, even when not required legally. Despite the ‘double channel’ of workers’ representation that exists in France, each measure is discussed with trade unions and with workers representatives. According to the trade unions themselves, such an approach allows the company to maintain a good social climate and to take workers’ needs into account. Decentralisation of the organisation permits flexibility: a framework is set up at national level and local arrangements are made in accordance with this framework, as shown by the working hours organisation. The success of this form of work organisation is the responsibility of all actors: through the collective agreement dealing with to financing of social improvements, workers themselves finance these social measures. The role of local management is also important: while the reluctance of some managers to engage in the process can give rise to some difficulties with the working time organisation, such problems are usually solved at the local level.
Exemplary and contextual factors
The quality of social dialogue is probably the best way to respond to the challenges that the company is going to face. The recent merger with Dolisos is a good test: integrating Dolisos’ employees and harmonising the staff regulations is a difficult task to manage. It can be assumed that Laboratoires Boiron’s culture is a key element in its success. Another important point is that collective bargaining within the company often anticipated the evolution of French legislation – for instance, in the field of working time reduction.
Christophe Tessier, Université européenne du travail, Paris