Protracted negotiations on issue of arduous work

After more than a year’s break, intersectoral bargaining on the issue of arduous work started again in June 2007. Negotiations remain difficult and no agreement has yet been reached on the practical details of introducing early retirement as compensation for the arduous nature of certain working conditions. The employers want evidence of an impact on the worker’s health, while trade unions consider that any exposed worker should be entitled to early retirement.

Negotiations at intersectoral level on ‘defining and taking into account arduous work’ re-opened in June 2007, after more than a year’s break and several demonstrations. The talks should be concluded by March 2008.

Difficult negotiations

The pension reform law, adopted on 21 August 2003, provided for intersectoral bargaining on defining and taking into account arduous work (FR0309103F). The aims of these negotiations are twofold: to improve working conditions as a preventive measure against workers being worn out by their occupations; and to compensate for the differences in life expectancy, particularly in the case of workers who combine several forms of arduous working conditions.

From the outset, negotiations have been difficult. Postponed for almost a year by the employer organisations, the talks eventually started on 23 February 2005 between three employer organisations and five trade union confederations. The employer groups include the Movement of French Enterprises (Mouvement des entreprises de France, MEDEF), the General Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (Confédération générale des petites et moyennes entreprises, CGPME) and the Inter-union Confederation for the Defence and United National Action of Self-employed Workers (Confédération Intersyndicale de Défense et d’Union Nationale d’Action des Travailleurs Indépendants, CIDUNATI). The trade union confederations comprise the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT), the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (Confédération française démocratique du travail, CFDT), the French Christian Workers’ Confederation (Confédération française des travailleurs chrétiens, CFTC), the General Confederation of Labour – Force ouvrière (Confédération générale du travail – Force ouvrière, CGT-FO) and the French Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff – General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff (Confédération française de l’encadrement – Confédération générale des cadres, CFE-CGC).

After eight plenary sessions, negotiations broke down at the end of March 2006 due to disagreement on two main issues:

  • funding of compensation. The trade unions dismissed the proposal that compensation for arduous work be paid only by public authorities, while the employer organisations rejected the notion of any contribution by companies;
  • introduction of early retirement. This was strongly advocated by the trade unions, but rejected by MEDEF, in particular.

In 2007, the trade unions pushed for negotiations to re-open. CFDT organised several demonstrations on 16 January 2007, while on 4 June, CGT held a national meeting in the northwestern town of Dunkerque on working conditions and several trades councils at département level mobilised on the issue. Negotiations finally started again on 5 June 2007, after the President of MEDEF, Laurence Parisot, accepted the principle of an early retirement mechanism co-funded by companies.

The meeting on 22 October 2007 was cancelled because of an unexpected change of leadership of the employers’ delegation. Negotiations resumed on 11 December. Trade unions and employer organisations have planned to meet every three weeks.

Bargaining on three main issues

The definition of and compensation for arduous work and early retirement processes are the main issues to be agreed on.

  • Definition and criteria of arduous work. Since the beginning of the negotiations in 2005, this point was agreed on. A working group reported on current knowledge on this issue. A draft agreement was submitted in January 2006, defining arduous work as the result of ‘physical and psychological demands of certain kinds of occupational activity, which have lasting, identifiable and irreversible effects on health’. It identifies three factors regarding arduous work: significant physical and psychological constraints, for example, in terms of effort, or posture and gestures; a harsh working environment; and certain work schedules, such as staggered working hours and night work.
  • Compensation for arduous work. Three possibilities have been explored in this regard: invalidity, a form of gradual early exit and an early retirement mechanism based on the model of ‘Early retirement for certain categories of employee’ (Cessation d’activité de certains travailleurs salariés, CATS) (FR0507105F). Finally an early exit scheme was chosen, as CGT rejected a mechanism based on the CATS model, which would in fact exclude several economic sectors as well as small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
  • Early retirement. At the 26 September 2007 plenary meeting, MEDEF proposed three cumulative conditions, namely, 40 years of employed work, 30 years of exposure and the existence of traces of lasting, identifiable and irreversible effects on health resulting from arduous work. MEDEF wants a case-by-case selection by a medical committee, depending on the state of health of each employee. Conversely, the trade unions want all employees who have been exposed to the agreed arduous working conditions to be able to benefit from early retirement, regardless of their current state of health. The trade unions requested that rights to early retirement should be proportional to exposure duration, with no minimum duration required.

On 26 September, the social partners also agreed to open parallel negotiations on stress at work in order to transpose the European framework agreement of October 2004 (EU0410206F). However the employer organisations cancelled the initial meeting on stress at work, planned for 13 November, and no further meeting has so far been scheduled.

Commentary

The social partners aim to reach an agreement before the topic of retirement pensions is due to be re-examined this year, particularly as some sectors have already started to negotiate on arduous work, for example, the paper and paperboard manufacturing sector. Negotiations should come to an end in March 2008.

The issue clearly involves taking the reality of arduous work into account, while at the same time avoiding a definition that is too broad and would recreate the possibility for large numbers of people to leave employment early.

The strategy of improving working conditions as a risk preventive measure is to be addressed at the next meeting of the tripartite conference on working conditions (FR0712029I).

Annie Jolivet, Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES)

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