More collective agreements and less conflict in 2012

The annual review of collective bargaining in France shows there has been an increase in the number of negotiations taking place at company level. The new data comes from the Ministry of Labour’s 2012 report on collective bargaining, which gives a general account of the key issues and areas of concern. It provides data on the number of agreements concluded and examines trends in the issues and objectives of negotiations. It also offers an assessment of industrial unrest.

Background

The French Labour Ministry’s annual report, Collective Bargaining 2012 (in French, 4.3MB PDF), was published on 2 July 2013 at the National Commission of Collective Negotiations. The report shows that the number of collective agreements has increased at all levels except the national inter-professional level. The report also provides information on key issues and areas of concern, data on the number of agreements concluded and identifies trends in the issues addressed by collective bargaining.

Strong national-level social dialogue

The findings of the annual review show that 29 national inter-professional agreements were concluded in 2012, compared with 46 in 2011 (FR1207011I) and 25 in 2010. Two national inter-professional agreements included measures about short-time unemployment (FR1112031I).

Two of the agreements are particularly significant. The first is the national inter-professional agreement on the modernisation of paritarism (bipartite management of organisation), concluded on 17 February 2012. The second is the National inter-professional agreement on the generation contract (FR1209031I) of 19 October 2012, which was signed by the five representative unions.

The social partners at national level have been very active and met several times to discuss three particular issues:

  • the modernisation of social dialogue;
  • employment security;
  • the quality of working life.

An agreement on employment security was concluded in January 2013 (FR1302011I) and on quality of working life in July (FR1307041I).

Increase in sectoral collective agreements

A total of 1,236 sectoral agreements were concluded in 2012, slightly higher than in 2011 (1,192). Over the past few years, the main issue has been wages, a key part of the negotiations in 579 agreements. Other main issues included:

  • the operation of social dialogue – the main issue in 320 agreements;
  • bonus payment systems (230);
  • professional training and apprenticeships (227);
  • gender equality (182 in 2012: 167 in 2011).

Company level agreements increase

The social partners signed around 38,800 company agreements in 2012, a significant increase of 15% compared to 2011. Union representatives signed 31,310 agreements and employee representatives 7,489. This means that 60% of those signed at company level are the result of an agreement between unions or employee representatives who have been mandated by a union.

Figures show 19% of agreements are based on unilateral decisions taken by employers, and 21% were approved by company referendum.

The increase in the number of agreements signed is largely due to compulsory collective bargaining. The Labour Code now obliges employers to negotiate regularly on a range of topics on an annual basis or a multi-annual basis. Since 2012, companies have also been required to include gender equality and the prevention of arduous work in the scope of collective bargaining.

Scope of negotiations

Of the 31,310 agreements signed with trade unions in 2012, 36% dealt with wages – an increase of 9%. This can be attributed to the introduction in January 2009 of sanctions for employers failing to open wage negotiations. The other main issue was working time, discussed in 23% of agreements. A number of these refer to equal treatment within the context of working time. The other main topics negotiated in 2012 were equal treatment (18%) and financial participation (18%).

Lowest levels of conflict since 2005

In 2011, there were fewer strikes and those that were held were shorter in duration. Levels of conflict were lower than at any time since 2005. In 2011, 1.8% of companies with ten or more employees experienced one or more collective work stoppage compared to 3.3% in 2010 and 2.2% in 2009. It was primarily the intensity of disputes that dropped sharply, both in the number of employees participating and the number of days lost to strikes.

The report suggests that the decline is likely to be a result of comparison with the first years of the financial crisis when there was serious industrial unrest. In 2008 and 2009 there were significant national demonstrations, and these intensified in 2010 following pension reform protests (FR1012011I).

Nearly three quarters of companies (74%) that experienced at least one strike said wages (53%) and working conditions (21%) were the cause of the industrial action. This compared to 37% of companies reporting similar reasons in 2010. Wages are at the heart of a large number of disputes in the retail sector, being given as the cause in more than two-thirds of companies experiencing at least one strike. Employment issues came third with 14%.

The number of individual days lost due to a dispute per 1,000 employees has dropped from 318 days to 77 between 2010 and 2011. This can be attributed to a sharp decrease in the intensity of demonstrations. The manufacturing sector lost only 116 days to strikes per 1,000 employees, against 604 in 2010. In the services sector, the number of individual days lost to strikes is a third of the figure for the year before, down from 143 to 47 days per 1,000 employees.

Reaction of the social partners

The French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT) commented that the increase in the number of negotiations at company level was largely due to employers terminating collective agreements in the hope of reducing the rights of employees. Companies have negotiated agreements on ‘competitiveness’ or ‘employment safeguarding’, seeking to reduce labour costs and increase their competitiveness. This has happened particularly in the metal working sector.

The union has also highlighted the obligation on employers to negotiate on specific issues. It criticised ‘weak’ provisions in agreements for the list of topics subject to compulsory negotiations, including the prevention of physically demanding work.

The French Christian Workers’ Confederation (CFTC) said it deplored the fact that the four million people working for small companies with fewer than 11 employees did not benefit from the legal provisions on compulsory bargaining or any other form of social dialogue.

This was also a concern of the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), which has called for the creation of a local level bipartite commission to oversee the introduction of social dialogue within these smaller companies.

The CFTC also believes that the quality of sector level agreements needs to be monitored.

On the employer side, the Confederation of Small and Medium-size Enterprises (CGPME) said it was satisfied with the content and the diversity of the national inter-professional agreements signed in 2012.

The Movement of French Enterprises (MEDEF) highlighted what it called the ‘flourishing dynamism’ of social dialogue but expressed its wish for greater autonomy for the social partners. It has also asked for constitutional reform to restrict the role of legislation so that the law on employment issues provides only the minimum standards required.

Commentary

The assessment presented by the Ministry of Labour is a useful analytical tool. However, it would be greatly improved if its scope was extended to include both quantitative and qualitative elements of collective bargaining. The strength of social dialogue cannot be measured simply by the number of agreements concluded, and often the contents of agreements are very weak and simply observe the law to avoid attracting penalties for non-compliance.

Frédéric Turlan, IR Share

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