National Assembly passes 35-hour week bill

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On 19 October 1999, the bill on France's second law on the 35-hour working week was passed on its first reading by the National Assembly. This legislation, which should become law by the end of 1999, lays down new statutory norms for the duration of working time and continues a policy of reducing social security contributions on low-waged jobs.

After much debate between the government and social partners and lengthy discussions within the governing left-wing coalition, the bill on the second law on the 35-hour working week, presented by Martine Aubry, the Minister for Employment and Solidarity, was passed on its first reading in the National Assembly on 19 October 1999, by 315 votes to 255. The compromise text had proved difficult for the coalition to reach, so the bill stands little chance of being amended on its second reading, and should come into force before the end of the year. The first law on the 35-hour week, which was adopted in June 1998 (FR9806113F), provided for the introduction of a statutory 35-hour week from January 2000 (2002 for smaller companies) and encouraged the social partners to negotiate on this issue at company and sector level. The second law sets out more detailed legal provisions on the new working time regime (FR9906190F). The most important aspects of the legislation are set out below.

Statutory working week

Statutory working time will be set at 35 hours per week, and will come into effect:

  • on 1 January 2000 in all companies employing more than 20 people as of that date; and
  • on 1 January 2002 in all companies with 20 employees or fewer.

Calculation and payment of overtime

A 12-month interim scheme will be put in place for the calculation and payment of overtime working. Between 1 January and 31 December 2000 (2002 for companies employing fewer than 20 people), the first four hours of overtime worked per week (ie the 36th to the 39th hour) will be subject to a special scheme. If an agreement on the 35-hour working week has been signed in a company, employees will be paid at a rate 10% higher than the normal one for these hours. In companies where no agreement has been signed, the 10% premium will be paid into an "employment fund".

During this transitional period, existing provision for overtime worked in excess of four hours per week (ie beyond the 39th hour) will be maintained - employees continue to receive a 25% pay premium.

After the 12-month period, overtime will attract a 25% pay premium from the 36th hour in the week and a 50% premium from the 43rd hour.

Actual time worked

The "Mickey Mouse" amendment (given this nickname due to the fact that the issue was first raised by Eurodisney employees), includes the time taken to put on and take off clothing (if special clothes are necessary for the job) as part of "actual time worked" (travail effectif). Breaks and meal times are considered as actual time worked if the employee "is at the employer's disposal".

Variations in working time

Since 1986 there have been three possible forms of variation (modulation) of the pattern of time worked around an average. The new legislation simplifies this by laying down one single form of variation.

This variation in working time must be established by a company or sector-level agreement extended by the Minister. The system allows the organisation of working time over all of part of the year, subject to a working week not exceeding an average of 35 hours over the 12-month period, and in any case conditional on a maximum annual total of 1,600 hours, - ie the equivalent of an average 35-hour week, allowing for weekly rest periods, five weeks' paid holidays and 11 statutory bank holidays (when they do not fall on a weekly day off). Forms of variation of working time for individual employees can also be implemented.

Reduction in social security contributions

Companies which reduce the working week to 35 hours will be granted a reduction in the social security contributions they have to pay on low-waged jobs, subject to an agreement with the authorities. This continuous government funding will vary from FRF 21,500 per year for each employee paid the SMIC national minimum wage down to FRF 4,000 for those employees paid 1.8 times the value of the SMIC and over.

Working time for managerial and professional staff

The bill passed by the National Assembly divides managerial and professional staff into three categories:

  • senior management, who are exempt from the regulations;
  • managerial and professional staff working within teams, to whom the 35-hour week legislation will apply; and
  • other managerial and professional staff, who may be covered - subject to a company agreement - by "flat-rate" schemes in which the time they work is calculated over a 12-month period, either in terms of hours or day. If the calculation is done on the basis of days, the maximum number worked per year cannot exceed 217.

SMIC minimum wage

The remuneration for employees paid the SMIC minimum wage will not be changed after the bill becomes law. To avoid a situation whereby those on the minimum wage (""smicards) would lose out by being paid 35 times the hourly rate of the SMIC, the second Act will provide that companies pay a "salary top-up" (complément différentiel de salaire). This will guarantee that "smicards" working a 35-hour week will be paid as much as they are for a 39-hour week currently. The state subsidies in the form of reduced social security contributions are aimed particularly at enabling companies to compensate for this extra expense.

Part-time work

No new part-time contract signed from January 2001 onwards will be eligible for the 30% reduction in employers' social security contributions currently in force.

Social plans

The so-called "Michelin amendment" to the bill provides that a social plan accompanying redundancies cannot be subsidised by the state if the employer has not reached an agreement on the 35-hour working week or has not "seriously and genuinely entered negotiations" on this issue.

Conditions for signing an agreement on the reduction of working time

Agreements reducing working time are to be given increased legitimacy (FR9909104F):

  • in companies with at least 50 employees, in order to qualify for employers' social security reductions, the reduction of working time must result from a company agreement signed by trade unions which together obtained a majority in the latest workforce elections, or one approved by the majority of the staff, or (in companies with no union delegates) from an agreement signed by an employee "mandated" by a union (FR9807123F) and approved by the majority of the employees;
  • in firms employing fewer than 50 people, the reduction of working time can also be the result of the direct application of a sector-level agreement extended by the Minister, or of an inter-company agreement, or of an agreement signed by workforce delegate s (if there are no trade union delegate s or mandated employee), approved by the majority of the employees and validated by a joint committee; and
  • in companies with fewer than 11 employees, the reduction of working time can also result (if there is no sector-level agreement or an approved, mandated employee) from a document drafted by the employer, setting out the ways in which the reduction of working time will be implemented, which is then approved by the majority of the staff.
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