Government launches tripartite conferences and consultations on social reforms

In October and November 2007, the French government organised two tripartite conferences on social policy issues to prepare for reforms in the areas of working conditions and gender equality. At the same time, a ‘series of discussions’ began between the government and the social partners on the themes of employment and purchasing power. The government warned that if no agreements could be reached between the social partners, it would draw up its own reform proposals.

The tripartite conferences launched in October and November 2007 by the French government, at the instigation of President Nicolas Sarkozy, have been one element of numerous discussions held towards the end of 2007 on issues regarding social policies.

Three topics have been on the agenda of these tripartite conferences on social policy issues (Conferences sociales) at intersectoral level:

  • working conditions;
  • gender equality;
  • employment and purchasing power – both issues were the subject of more informal discussions which received less media coverage.

Conference on working conditions

On 4 October 2007, the current Minister of Labour, Social Affairs and Solidarity, Xavier Bertrand, with the participation of the former Minister of Labour, Gérard Larcher, convened the tripartite conference on working conditions. This conference aimed to initiate negotiations between the social partners on three topics:

  • working conditions in small companies;
  • reinforcing workplace health and safety committees (Comité d’hygiène, de sécurité et des conditions de travail, CHSCT);
  • the right of employees to notify and ask for information from the employer when working conditions deteriorate.

As is the case for ongoing negotiations on other topics, the government announced that if the social partners do not reach an agreement by March 2008, it will proceed to pass a law based on its own proposals. Minister Bertrand has already presented an idea of what process the reform should take, which includes the extension of CHSCT’s mandates from two to four years. He also announced that criteria would be introduced for assessing stress levels at work – a group of experts were given the task of drawing up, by 15 January 2008, a series of indicators for measuring the incidence of psychosocial risks in the workplace, such as stress, depression and suicide (FR0711039I).

In order to measure occupational hazards related to exposure to dangerous substances, Minister Bertrand has asked the Bipartite Industrial Accidents and Diseases Body (Caisse paritaire d’assurance accidents du travail-maladies professionnelles) to set up another group of experts. This group will have six months to make proposals regarding the traceability of exposure to carcinogenic, mutagenic and toxic substances.

The issue of arduous working conditions was not on the conference agenda, because it is the subject of ongoing bipartite negotiations. However, Minister Bertrand announced plans to carry out an information campaign on musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). The government has also considered the idea put forward by the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT) to transform the Higher Council for the Prevention of Occupational Risks (Conseil supérieur de la prévention des risques professionnels, CSPRP) into a Working Conditions Steering Committee (Conseil d’orientation sur les conditions de travail), along the lines of the Pensions Steering Committee (Conseil d’orientation des retraites, COR).

In general, the social partners have reacted favourably to these initiatives, particularly on the trade union side. CGT was alone in deploring the fact that the issue of compensation for victims of occupational accidents was not brought up at the conference.

On the employer side, the Movement of French Enterprises (Mouvement des entreprises de France, MEDEF) announced that it is in favour of the ‘right to notify’, as well as better training and a longer mandate for CHSCT members. However, MEDEF is against the introduction of a workplace health representative in small companies.

Another tripartite meeting on working conditions is planned for the first half of 2008.

Conference on gender equality

On 27 November 2007, Minister Bertrand organised a tripartite conference on occupational and pay equality between men and women. The conference highlighted the fact that the various laws on these issues had not been fully implemented and adhered to by employers. Despite three laws, which were adopted in 1983, 2001 and 2006, women’s pay has remained significantly lower than that of men.

The 1983 law obliges companies to draft an annual report on the situation regarding gender inequality, but only 30% of employers do so. Likewise, the obligation under the 2001 law to raise this issue during collective bargaining is only respected in the case of 1.6% of all collective agreements.

At the end of the conference, Minister Bertrand announced that – in line with President Sarkozy’s undertakings – from 2010 onwards, financial penalties will be imposed on companies that fail to publish a report on the gender equality situation in their company and also on those organisations which have not signed an agreement on occupational equality. The minister also announced discussions on adjusting parental leave, which was introduced in 1985. Overall, 98% of current beneficiaries of parental leave are women, as they often face difficulties in re-entering the labour market after the birth of a child. The government wants parental leave benefits to be increased and encourages more fathers to take advantage of this arrangement.

Once again, the social partners – particularly the trade unions – reacted favourably to the government’s initiatives. MEDEF also stated that it supports the idea of financial penalties, provided that criminal penalties are abolished.

Social reforms and ‘autonomous’ bargaining

The ongoing programme of law reform initiatives and the negotiations between the social partners are highly interlinked.

Two of the reforms proposed by the government that currently involve ‘autonomous’ bargaining between the social partners at intersectoral level are related to:

  • ‘arduous work’;
  • the reform of employment contracts, including ‘making career paths secure’ (FR0710029I).

The government has clearly stated that if no agreement is reached between the social partners, it will draw up its own proposals for reforming the law on these issues.

Therefore, the government set 31 December 2007 as the deadline for the reform of employment contracts. However, the social partners, who currently meet once a week, require the deadline to be extended by a few months.

Bipartite negotiations have been announced on other topics, such as reforming representativeness criteria, but these proceedings have yet to start.

Consultations have also taken place with the social partners on other planned reforms before the government draws up its own proposals. This was the case regarding the merger of the National Employment Agency (Agence nationale pour l’emploi, ANPE) and the National Union for Employment in Industry and Commerce (Union nationale interprofessionnelle pour l’emploi dans l’industrie et le commerce, UNEDIC) with its Association for Employment in Industry and Commerce (Association pour l’emploi dans l’industrie et le commerce, Assedic). As for the reform of the special pension schemes, the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT) suggested a special form of negotiations, namely decentralised tripartite negotiations at company level which includes the participation of government representatives.

Moreover, in the civil and public services, this type of tripartite conference has also been used to deal with issues such as occupations, purchasing power, social dialogue and career paths.

Commentary

In organising these tripartite conferences on working conditions and gender equality, the government has shown real concern for social consultations – before, however, tackling more conflictual issues, such as purchasing power, working time and pensions.

Udo Rehfeldt, Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES)

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