Part-time work in France: choice or obligation?

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October 1999 saw the release of a report on part-time work in France by Gilbert Cette of the Economic Analysis Council. The document sets out the current state of play on part-time work, which has to date experienced only very moderate growth in France and is for the most part imposed by "employers." The report proposes a series of changes to regulations designed to promote part-time working based on "employees opting for this arrangement." The challenges involved in implementing these changes are highlighted by two commentaries accompanying the report, which stress the importance of the social partners adopting an innovative approach, particularly in terms of developing bargaining on part-time work and creating a status for part-time workers which gives them new rights.

On 1 October 1999, Gilbert Cette, a scientific advisor and member of the Economic Analysis Council (Conseil d'analyse économique) presented a report on part-time work in France to the press ("Le temps partiel en France", G Cette, Les rapports du Conseil d'analyse économique, La Documentation Française (1999)).

The Cette report attempts to show that it is possible in France, as proven in other European countries, in particular in the Netherlands, to develop opportunities for part-time work which is chosen voluntarily by employees, and which is able to address numerous goals, such as: increasing the employment-creation effect of economic growth; greater flexibility; control of wage costs; and better reconciliation of work obligations with private and family life.

Part-time working is only moderately developed in France compared with other western European countries. However, no other country allocates more public money to promoting its growth. Furthermore, employee expectations seem far from being satisfied: the proportion of full-time employees wishing to switch to part-time working far outstrips those part-time employees wishing to work full time. Compared with other countries, there is a considerably lower level of choice involved in French part-time working, with this form of employment generally imposed by employers. This would appear to be the main obstacle to developing it.

The report underlines the main characteristics of part-time working - it involves principally women, employed under poor working conditions in unskilled or low-status, low-wage jobs. It is a way of either integrating young people into the labour market or of assisting the passage of older workers towards retirement, and for most it represents a way out of unemployment. The report points out that there is greater financial pressure on workers forced to take part-time work than on those who voluntarily choose this arrangement. It also states that there is a cumulative disparity effect, since the jobs with the shortest working hours are also the least well paid.

Proposals

The Cette report proposes a number of policies "to promote the development of part-time work chosen by those involved", which include:

  • changing the definition of part-time workers, in line with the 1997 EU Directive on part-time work (97/81/EC) (EU9712175N), which states that a part-time worker is "an employee whose normal hours of work, calculated on a weekly basis or on average over a period of employment of up to one year, are less than the normal hours of work of a comparable full-time worker";
  • making social protection "pro rata with that of full-time employees; and"
  • overhauling government subsidies to promote part-time work in order to bring them into step with the financial assistance available within the framework of collective reductions of working time, and to make them conditional on the conclusion of a collective agreement on the conditions for use of part-time work and on the options available to employees choosing part-time work, especially in terms of annualised part-time hours

The report presents the development of part-time work - which it sees as an individual form of working time reduction - as going hand in hand with a collective working time reduction policy, such as the current "35-hour week legislation (FR9910197N)." The conditions for the increased use of part-time work must be laid down by collective bargaining: for the development of part-time work to meet the needs of all concerned, both companies and workers must be involved in the decision-making process.

Expert commentaries

The report is accompanied by two commentaries by expert members of the Economic Analysis Council, which seek to shed light on the challenges and ambiguities facing the proposed development of part-time work.

In the first commentary, Robert Boyer states that the implementation of a statutory right for employees to opt to work part time would be far from sufficient in a context where many workers are unaware of their rights and where the current labour market climate considerably weakens workers' ability to control alterations to working hours. Mr Boyer thus recommends a complete reversal of the logic behind current government financial assistance schemes to promote part-time working, by allocating aid not to companies, as is the case at present, but rather to workers themselves. This would give employees more freedom of choice.

In the second commentary, Jacques Freyssinet refers to the specific legal status of part-time work. In France, while full-time working is governed collectively by collectively-agreed or statutory standards, part-time working is based, for the most part, on the "legal fiction" of an individual employment contract. The commentary also stresses the fact that part-time workers are a heterogeneous group and that part-time working fulfils many social and economic functions. Mr Freyssinet especially highlights the belief that the notion of part-time work based on the individual choice of workers is ambiguous, since choice exists only within a system of incentives and restrictions. These points add weight to the report's recommendation to promote "a favourable environment for the implementation of part-time work through bargaining".

Legislative developments

The lack of immediate reaction to the publication of the Cette report was not surprising, given the current intense debate surrounding the 35-hour week - a first law on this subject, 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 before a second law set out more detailed legal provisions (FR9906190F). The Cette report was released almost simultaneously with the start of debate in the National Assembly on the second 35-hour week bill, tabled by the Minister for Employment and Solidarity, Martine Aubry (FR9910197N). Two major public demonstrations preceded the debate, organised by the MEDEF employers' confederation and CGT trade union confederation respectively (FR9910114N). In the words of the chair of MEDEF, his organisation was battling against the "historic error" embodied by the "Aubry laws", while CGT was demonstrating for a " 35-hour week law that would create jobs and bolster public well-being" (though the other main unions did not take part in this demonstration).

However, part-time work imposed by employers is one of the key issues addressed by the second bill. The amendments tabled by the current governing parties in the National Assembly involve scrapping - by the end of 1999 - employer social security contribution exemptions that have applied to part-time working since 1992. An open letter from a National Collective for Women's Rights (Collectif National des Droits des Femmes) to Ms Aubry, published in the Le Monde newspaper on 7 October, demands that schemes to promote part-time working be scrapped and deplores the fact that the 35-hour working week bill does not limit "imposed" part-time work and does not enable women to "exercise their right to full-time employment". Bringing the French definition of part-time work into step with the EU Directive - ie any work falling below the statutory working week - as advocated by both the second Aubry bill and the Cette report, could lead to a "windfall" for companies hiring workers on 34-hour contracts simply to take advantage of government aid schemes. This, it is claimed, could worsen inequality between the sexes.

Commentary

Mr Freyssinet's commentary on the Cette report suggest the real nature of choice or constraint in part-time work. Choice exists only within a framework of restrictions and incentives. In other words, is it possible to decide whether part-time working is a choice or an obligation without looking closely at the balance of economic, social and family obligations? Given that part-time work mainly affects women, the specific balance in question revolves around obligations to earn money and to look after children. Is it certain that workers, and more especially female workers, would be in favour of part-time working if childcare were made less problematic - eg through better day care facilities? Should it not first be ascertained whether countries with the highest voluntary, chosen part-time work rates are not only those where part-time work is most highly developed but also where this arrangement appears best to solve problems associated with childcare?

Apart from general statistics, the Cette report deals very little with gender inequalities. The report fails to point out that part-time work in all countries, be it chosen or imposed, primarily represents a "ghetto" for working women, most of whom unskilled. The so-called reconciliation of work and family life remains a "women's problem", leading to discrimination on the labour market. The report undoubtedly hopes that bargaining part-time work based on bargaining will not only more effectively harmonise the needs of workers and companies but also reduce factors leading to discrimination. The debate on whether collective bargaining could reduce discrimination against women both in the workplace and on the labour market is nothing new. (François Michon, IRES)

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