35-Hour Week by 2000
Without Pay Loss
by JEFF APTER
French unions have welcomed their new administrations promise to
bring in a 35-hour legal week by the end of the century, without loss of wages. The
Socialist-led coalition has pledged to introduce legislation to cut the maximum length of
the working week from 39 to 35 hours by January 2000 for big corporations and two years
later for smaller companies. Two-thirds of all French people favor the measure.
French unemployment is at a record 3.13 million 12.5 percent of the
workforce. The new administration was elected unexpectedly on June 1 after conservative
President Jacques Chirac made an historic mistake by calling early elections and lost his
huge conservative majority in the House. Its priority is to reduce unemployment. And just
one way of doing this is to encourage job creation by reducing working hours.
Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin announced after nearly nine-hour
negotiations with unions and employers that there would be a 35-hour week for all within
the next five years, the lifetime of the new administration.
Next spring, the government is to lodge a bill in the French parliament
setting an "objective" of a 35-hour maximum working week without loss of income.
This is to be effected through a combination of aid from the administration, wage
restraint and productivity increases.
In 1998, employers will be able to receive up to $1,500 for each employee
covered for reaching agreements with unions which cut working hours by at least 10 percent
and which increase staff numbers by at least 6 percent. This sum could be increased by
about another $600 per head for additional efforts, such as achieving a 32-hour week.
Businesses with fewer than 20 employees and management grades are exempted
from the 35-hour plan. Sources in the French administration indicate that up to 42,000 new
jobs could be created next year through reducing working hours.
At the end of 1999, a second bill will outline the precise terms for a
reduced work week based on the state of the economy and on voluntary agreements between
employers and unions.
The present legal 39-hour week was introduced by the Socialist-led
administration in 1982. It had been at 40 hours since 1936 when the Socialists reduced it
from 48 hours.
In addition to the cut in the working week, the newly-elected left
coalition led by the Socialist Party and including Communists, environmentalists,
left-wing Socialists and left-wing Radicals, is firmly committed to creating 700,000 jobs
for young people, about half each in the public services and private sectors. Nearly one
in three of young people in France are unemployed.
While welcoming the measure, the big CGT and FO labor federations said
they were hoping for a stricter law enforcing the deadline for implementing the 35-hour
week by 1999. They said they would put pressure on pro-union political parties during the
debate in Congress next year.
Meanwhile, the bosses are reacting strongly against the decision. The
French employers association chairman resigned over the measure, warning the country
could expect future conflict between business and government.