French candidates divided on future of 35-hour work week
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France’s famed 35-hour work week has been subject to intense debate as French candidates spar on the issues. Some argue that firms need more labour flexibility while others want to extend the work week or eliminate the 35-hour cap entirely.
Introduced in 2000 to boost job growth, the 35-hour legal limit does not outlaw working more hours; rather, it sets the threshold that triggers overtime pay at 35 hours. French employees worked 40.4 hours a week on average in 2015, according to Eurostat, down from 41.2 hours in 2011.
The political right and some corporate interests say the 35-hour week is the cause of France’s stagnant economy and its near-record unemployment. But the law's defenders say it is vital for the protection and well-being of workers.
A new look at the work week
Conservative Les Républicains candidate François Fillon is the only presidential hopeful who has proposed eliminating the 35-hour limit. After a year or 18 months of employment, new working hours would be set based on an agreement negotiated with the firm. He proposes no change for those who wish to remain working a 35-hour week. Fillon also wants to raise the work week for the civil servants to 39 hours.
En Marche! (Forward!) candidate Emmanuel Macron wants to "return flexibility" to companies but without completely eliminating the 35-hour week. He wants companies to be able to renegotiate work hours as well as the threshold for increases in overtime.
Marine Le Pen wants increases in working hours to be by negotiation only.
Benoît Hamon and Jean-Luc Mélenchon advocate a reduction in work hours, but propose leaving the 35-hour legal limit unchanged.
Hamon proposes doing this by providing firms with incentives to reduce work times. Companies that commit to a reduction in working hours (offering 32-hour and four-day weeks or part-time work) would see a reduction in their mandatory social contributions.
Mélenchon wants a sixth week of paid holiday, favours a four-day week and wants to apply a 32-hour legal limit for night-shift workers and for those in "arduous" jobs. He also wants daily limits only to apply to senior executives and to revisit moves to allow more work on Sundays (in sectors such as retail).
Do companies and employees want change?
Nearly two-thirds of employees are opposed to eliminating the 35-hour work week, and even more are opposed to increasing work hours without a corresponding rise in wages, according to a BVA poll from December.
According to Présidentielles 2017, a survey carried out by France's National Association of Human Resource Departments, working times do not appear to be a major corporate concern. First and foremost, firms want to see reductions in their social security charges as well as more flexibility in hiring and firing. Options for extending working hours have also already been introduced by the recent – and controversial – labour reforms introduced under President François Hollande.
What effects will the plans have on wages?
Fillon has vowed that new agreements on working times will need to be "win-win" and will not result in lower wages for those currently working overtime hours. But for civil servants, Fillon has warned that "increases in remuneration cannot be proportional" to his proposed increase in their working hours. In the private sector, Fillon says everything would depend on negotiated agreements.
Macron has proposed exempting overtime pay from taxes in a bid to increase purchasing power. Employees would also be able to renegotiate their social charges to under 25 percent, as already allowed by current labour reforms.
Le Pen has proposed "total” compensation and tax exemptions for overtime hours, calling for "37 hours paid for 37 hours work".
Hamon is adamant that employees will not earn less even if work hours are reduced. He wants compensation to be financed by the government’s Competitiveness and Employment Tax Credit.
Mélenchon has called for a 50 percent rise in wages after the fifth hour of overtime.
Work hours and unemployment
A decrease in the number of hours worked by each employee would theoretically require companies to hire more people to make up for any shortfall in productivity. This could "lead to job creation and to a fall in unemployment in the short term”, says the France Strategy think tank.
But the think tank also says a reduction in work hours must be accompanied by a decrease in wages to see any long-term effects on unemployment, as keeping wages stable might make hiring more workers too expensive for firms.
On the other hand, an increase in hours worked "is likely to lead to a rise in unemployment”, the group warns, “especially if the economy is depressed”. France Strategy recommends compensating employees sufficiently for working more to guard against a possible drop in productivity brought on by the longer hours.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)