Agreement on quality of working life and professional equality

An agreement addressing the issues of quality of working life and professional equality has been signed by social partners in France. The national interprofessional agreement was signed on July 2013 by the country’s three employer organisations and three of the five representative trade unions. The two unions that refused to sign criticised the deal for failing to create new rights for workers. However, the door is now open for negotiations within companies on equality at work.

Background

After nine months of negotiation, an agreement has been signed by social partners in France on the quality of working life and professional equality. The deal was signed by all three of the country’s employer organisations. Three of the five union confederations put their names to the document – the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT), the General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff (CFE-CGC), and the French Christian Workers’ Confederation (CFTC).

Although two unions declined to sign the agreement, it is considered valid because the three union signatories gained over 30% of votes at the professional elections, the threshold required under law to validate national agreements.

The two other representative trade unions, the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) and the General Confederation of Labour–Force Ouvrière (CGT-FO), refused to sign, but because together they did not gain at least 50% of the votes, they cannot veto the agreement.

In September 2012, after the first Grand Social Conference (FR1205031I), the social partners made a commitment to begin negotiations on the quality of working life and professional equality. A definition of ‘quality of working life’ had already been agreed (FR1208011I). However, discussions proved difficult and the conclusion of the negotiations had been postponed on several occasions.

The Government of France has indicated that this agreement will lead to amendments to its gender equality bill. The scope of the legislation was outlined in a press release (in French) on 3 July 2003, the on day on which the bill itself was presented to the Council of Ministers.

Joint negotiations on gender equality

One of the main areas of dispute throughout the talks was the merger of the annual negotiations on gender equality (Labour Code, Article L. 2242–5 (in French)) and negotiations over the gender wage gap (Labour Code, Article L. 2242–7 (in French)). Unions were strongly opposed to merging the negotiations. In the end, the national inter-professional agreement settled on creating a link between both sets of negotiations, rather than a full merger. The legislature has been asked to define the terms of this ‘link’.

Unique agreement on quality of working life

The signatories are seeking to test the principle of a single set of negotiations on the quality of working life, either at company or sectoral level. This experiment can only take place if it has the support of those trade unions that gained more than 30% of the vote at the last professional elections.

The aim of this approach is to combine into a single bargaining programme various statutory negotiations that regulate the quality of working life. These will cover issues such as working time, gender equality, the removal of the gender wage gap, stress and harassment, and workers with disabilities. However, employers will still be required to participate in the mandatory annual collective bargaining round over wages.

If the social partners fail to reach an agreement, the issue of quality of working life will be addressed in the negotiations over the right of expression of employees (Labour Code, Article L. 2281–5).

Finally, within the framework of social dialogue on the quality of working life, companies must encourage their employees to express their opinions on employment through the creation of discussion forums. The results of these forums will be presented to management and staff representatives.

Role of information and consultation bodies

While the collective agreement establishes a single set of negotiations over the quality of working life, a preliminary diagnosis must be made to identify those topics within the scope of the talks. The various information and consultation bodies – such as health and safety committees and works councils – will be expected to provide their input and contribute to the process.

The collective agreement will specify the information employers are required to provide to employee representatives. Information and consultation bodies will also be involved in making sure recommendations are carried through, and will participate in the monitoring of the discussion forums.

Reconciling privacy and professional equality

The agreement contains a series of measures to ‘improve the quality of life at work, the reconciliation of time and professional equality’. It asks social partners to look at the way in which technology allows work to intrude into employees’ private lives through the use of devices such as laptops and smartphones. There is a suggestion that agreement could be reached on a period of time during which ‘internet connectivity’ between the worker and the workplace could be suspended.

Social partners’ reaction

There has been no official reaction from the three employers’ organisations – the Movement of French Enterprises (MEDEF), the General Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (CGPME), and the Craftwork Employers’ Association (UPA).

However, unions have commented. The CGT, which declined to sign the agreement, said the text was ‘a declaration of good intentions’, but ‘not prescriptive’. In a press release (in French), CGT also criticised changes which allowed employers to group ‘various negotiations over three years’, which could result in the waiving of the existing Labour Code.

The other non-signatory union, CGT-FO, described the agreement as ‘partly hollow’, and said it failed to create ‘new rights for workers’. It said in a press release (in French) that the agreement ‘dilutes union demands and alleviates the burden on business’ and that it deviates from the rules of the Labour Code.

CFDT was less critical, and said in a press release (in French):

This agreement, concluded for a fixed term of three years, is primarily based on our ability to create a dynamic in companies, sectors and territories to truly change the lives of employees.

CFTC said in a press release (in French):

The agreement provides a boundary and a satisfactory description of the quality of life at work. [It makes]…the organisation of work an issue for social dialogue.

According to a press release (in French) from CFE-CGC

this agreement is a chance to re-humanise work! In these times of crisis, the quality of working life is a factor that contributes to the economic health of companies and the well-being of employees.

Commentary

The signing of the agreement was overshadowed by the Social Conference, which announced further structural reforms for pensions (FR1306021I) and vocational training.

Another development that drew attention from the agreement was the departure of Laurence Parisot from the leadership of MEDEF, the main employers’ organisation, and the appointment of Pierre Gattaz as its new president.

While the agreement has been denounced by CGT and CGT-FO for failing to create new rights for workers, it nevertheless opens the door for negotiations within companies, and sectors, on a topic often neglected in times of crisis.

Frédéric Turlan, IR Share

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