Working time dominated bargaining in 1999

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The reduction of working time drove the collective bargaining process in France during 1999. The number of company-level agreements rose by over 130%, while sector-level bargaining was dominated by the implementation of the 35-hour working week, enabling 4.5 million employees to have their working time reduced. These are the main findings of the Ministry of Employment and Solidarity's annual bargaining report, issued in June 2000.

On 26 June 2000, the Ministry of Employment and Solidarity presented its report on the previous year's collective bargaining ( "La négociation collective en 1999, Tome I: La tendance, Tome II: Chiffres et documents, Tome III: Les dossiers", Ministère de l'Emploi et de la Solidarité, Éditions législatives, Paris, 2000) to the social partners represented in the National Collective Bargaining Commission (Commission supérieure de la négociation collective), as it does every year.

The year 1999 was marked by the implementation of the first "Aubry law", passed on 13 June 1998 (FR9806113F), and the preparation of the second Aubry law, promulgated on 19 January 2000 (FR0001137F). The first law 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 at company and sector level. The second Aubry law sets out more detailed legal provisions on the new working time regime. There was a particularly high level of collective bargaining activity in 1999, both in order to implement the measures laid down in the first Aubry law and to prepare the ground for the second.

Intersectoral bargaining

As in 1998 (FR9907198F), the intersectoral level of bargaining was used relatively rarely, with only some 30 amendments to existing national agreements being adopted. The report notes two significant features of 1999:

  • consideration by the social partners of the role of collective bargaining in industrial relations and of how it can be improved; and
  • the renewal of several UNEDIC unemployment insurance measures, including the "job substitution allowance" (Allocation de remplacement pour l'emploi, ARPE) scheme, which was prolonged for six months (FR0001134F).

Sectoral bargaining

In 1999, 733 texts were signed at sector level, compared with 741 in 1998, with the slight drop however masking a high degree of variation in activity at different levels. There was a significant rise in national sectoral bargaining (564 texts signed, compared with 495 in 1998), and a fall in local sectoral bargaining (115 texts, compared with 130 in 1998).

Reduction of working time

The reduction of working time (réduction du temps de travail, RTT) was carried through with exceptional energy in 1999, with 147 agreements on the subject, 98 of which were "35-hour week agreements". If the 10 agreements reached in the agricultural sector are added to this, then by the end of 1999, 4.5 million employees were covered by a sector-level agreement on the reduction of working time, with 76 more agreements signed than in 1998. Several conclusions can be drawn from these agreements:

  • distribution of working time over a 12-month period. Many agreements (60%) provide for the use of a 12-month period for calculating working hours, with a high degree of clustering around the 1,600 hours per year mark;
  • working time reduction in the form of days off. The possibility of reducing working time by granting days or half-days off is provided for in 83 agreements. The ways in which these solutions are implemented vary, ranging from the declaration of a general principle to much more detailed provisions, especially in relation to managerial and professional staff;
  • overtime. Almost half the agreements set an annual overtime limit of 130 hours. More than 60% of agreements provide for a lower limit if annualisation of working time is implemented. The report registers the increased occurrence at sector level of compensatory time off in lieu (repos compensateur de remplacement, or RCR) as opposed to payment for overtime;
  • managerial and professional staff. The theme of working time reductions for managerial and professional staff (cadres) (FR9909105F) was frequently dealt with in the working time negotiations, with only 15 sector-level agreements making no reference to it. Two out of three agreements stipulate criteria for defining those managerial and professional staff who are eligible for working time packages with no specified number of hours to be worked. The most frequently evoked criterion was that of "a large degree of independence in the organisation of working time", and "a great deal of decision-making autonomy". The other agreements refer to managerial and professional staff who are covered by packages which include a specified number of hours to be worked, be they on a weekly, monthly or annual basis, and expressed in hours or days. Very few agreements set out this basis in terms of weeks or months, and around 40% use annualised working time expressed in hours or days.
  • the use of time savings accounts (comptes épargne temps, CET). This issue is covered by a third of the sector-level agreements on working time reduction.

Related topics

As in 1998, negotiations on working time reductions led to provisions being agreed on many other linked topics, such as the reorganisation of working time, management of free time (especially in view of annualisation), employment, training, and wage policy. There were very few subjects for negotiation unconnected, in some way with this central topic. Thus the overlapping of the various themes of negotiation, emphasises the report, "endorses the theory that the boundaries between the various fields of negotiation have been removed. RTT has created a wide-ranging dynamic whose effects can be measured over the agreements as a whole" (such as wage freezes or maintenance of wage levels, vocational training, and employment levels).

Company-level bargaining

The number of company- and establishment-level agreements concluded more than doubled, rising by 130% from 13,300 in 1998 to 31,000 in 1999. This unprecedented growth was primarily due to the boost given by negotiations on working time reductions.

The report makes particular reference to:

  • the predominance of bargaining on working time (referred to in 80% of the agreements) and employment (64%);
  • the reduction of the proportion of agreements dealing with wages (one-third of all agreements), despite the overall number of agreements having doubled;
  • the sizeable volume of "multi-thematic" negotiations, with the practically standard presence of working time as a topic within them;
  • a sharp rise in the amount of bargaining in small and medium-sized enterprises SMEs, through the "mandating" system, which accounted for 60% of working time reduction agreements reached in companies with fewer than 50 staff. Mandating (FR9807123F) means that in companies with no trade union delegate or workforce delegate fulfilling the duties of a union delegate, an employee can be mandated by a nationally representative trade union to sign collective agreements (normally, bargaining rights are essentially restricted to union representatives). However, out of more than 4 million employees covered by company agreements in 1999, half were working in firms with a workforce of over 1,000;
  • six out of 10 agreements were signed in the tertiary (services) sector.


The 1999 report on collective bargaining has borne out the difficulty of understanding the nature and development of industrial relations in France by utilising the traditional methodology of annual reports on bargaining. These are presented as a simple balance sheet of agreements registered with the offices of the ministry responsible for labour matters. No detailed lessons can thus be drawn from them.

For 1999, the report's authors have observed the changes in the topics covered by negotiations, above all the way in which these themes overlap. Indeed, the logic of dealing with the various traditional headings for subjects of bargaining - wages, working hours, employment, training etc - no longer provides an adequate basis for analysis. One of the report's principal merits is finally to demonstrate that we are now witnessing "multifunctional" negotiations in which the various topics overlap, with the reduction of working time playing a structuring role in 1999. Now would be the right time for this awareness about the multifaceted character of collective bargaining to result in new forms of record-keeping (both quantitative and qualitative) on this subject. (Alexandre Bilous, IRES)

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