Resisting Labour Reforms in France

Resisting Labour Reforms in France

 

The current industrial action will test the ‘reactionary radicalism’ of French unions and the Government’s ability to introduce reforms.

Heather Connolly

On 4th November 2015, France’s labour minister, Myriam El Khomri, launched reforms designed to rewrite the labour code. France’s labour code is more than 3,500 pages long in its latest edition, plus vast amounts of supplementary case law. This fact makes it difficult for most people to make sense of and keep track of current legislation and hence to understand what is actually being reformed. Against a background marked by a high level of unemployment of around 10 per cent, and particularly high levels of youth unemployment, the two main objectives were to revise the entire labour code and to give company-level agreements a central role.

 

In a nutshell, El Khomri proposed a labour code with a new architecture resting on three tiers and centred on collective bargaining at the branch and company level. The first tier guarantees fundamental principles such as the minimum wage and working hours (the well-known 35-hour week) from which employers would not be able to depart. The second tier comprises areas open to negotiation, at branch or company level. The third tier covers the provisions applicable where there is no branch or company level agreement between employers and unions.

 

Earlier this year, on 24th March, the Council of Ministers adopted a revised version of El Khomri’s Bill. As a result of earlier protests the government has somewhat watered down the proposals to the extent that business leaders now see the law as irrelevant because the original intention – to allow small businesses to make deals directly with workers, rather than unions – has been removed in the revised version of the law. MEDEF, representing mainly large employers, was unhappy with changes introduced in the new version of the bill, while CGPME and UPA, organisations representing small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), felt disadvantaged by new rules that offer greater flexibility to large companies than to SMEs through social dialogue. On the union side, the reformist unions (CFDT, CFTC, CFE-CGC, UNSA) noted improvements that brought the proposed changes more in line with their preferences. But other unions (CGT, FO, SUD) and student organisations have continued to demand the withdrawal of the proposals. Nevertheless, the government has presented the bill to parliament for debate with a view to its adoption in summer.

 

As France experiences more industrial action this month, notably during the run up to Euro 2016, it is important to reflect on what the labour reforms signify and why the new law has caused such widespread action and disruption. The new law was intended to start the same process that has long been under way in France’s neighbours, notably Germany and the UK, loosening up the labour market and reducing employee protection, but in turn creating new jobs. France is often accused of failing to adapt to the realities of globalisation and to hampering job creation and growth by having such ‘rigid’ labour protections.

 

However, job creation is held up as being the Holy Grail to achieving growth, but with little attention paid to the types of jobs that would be created as a result of loosening up the labour market and the ((un)intended) social costs that creating more precarious jobs has on society more widely. The UK is hardly a model that France would want to follow, considering the high levels of income inequality and the proliferation of precarious work in the form of zero-hours contracts, for example. Is Germany the model to follow, again with its (often underestimated) high levels of income inequality and low-paying service sector jobs? Indeed it was only in 2014 that Germany introduced a minimum wage to redress the high disparity in incomes and precariousness in parts of the labour market, particularly in the service sector. There are of course social costs attached to high levels of unemployment and particularly for young workers who find it difficult to enter the core of permanent, protected workers. The question is whether the answer is to make everyone more precarious.

 

Trade union radicalism and mobilisation has been a significant feature of the labour movement in France. While in general there has been a decline of strikes in France, there has been a persistence of resistance and protest. However, most of the current protests are about demands to open up negotiation and social dialogue rather than more radical demands. Recently, the usual suspects in transport have been at the centre of strikes and mobilisations against labour reforms, including a railways strike lasting 10 days from 1st June and workers on the underground beginning an open-ended strike on 10th June. The three main unions representing rail workers – the more radical CGT, UNSA and SUD-rail – have engaged in several bouts of strike action and encouraged open-ended strikes. The CFDT union has cancelled some more recent calls to strike after succeeding in gaining guarantees from the government. The motivation for the most recent walk-out is in part due to opposition to France’s labour reforms – however rail workers have also organised the strike to put pressure on SNCF bosses as negotiations continue over their pay, working conditions and working hours.

 

Over the last fifteen years, France has introduced radical changes into its labour law. The latest reform is thus one more component of this protracted process of reform. It takes even further the liberal rationale of greater flexibility in the labour market which, in the view of some trade union and student organisations, is not offset by the provision of increased security for workers.

 

French union activists have been described as ‘reactionary radicals’ – reactionary because union activists are attempting to prevent a change from taking place, and radical because they aspire to a type of far-reaching change that would foster a balance of power more favourable to labour, neutralise the neo-liberal project, and allow for the continuation of the sociocultural world of public sector workers.

 

However, much of the protests and strikes since the onset of the economic crisis in 2008 have been guided by a defensive rather than offensive agenda centred on the defence of employment benefits, the acquis sociaux (acquired rights), and the status quo. The most recent strikes reflect not only continuity of reactionary radicalism and defending hard-won rights, but an expression of the relationship of subordination between workers and their employers and the shift in the balance of power towards employers, which has notably taken place under a Socialist government.

 

The current strikes are therefore a test of strength for the French trade union movement and their ability to resist reforms. Similarly, the reforms are also a test for the French government. The outcomes arising from the industrial action will be watched closely by employers, big and small, and will demonstrate the government’s commitment to reform of the labour laws.

 

Heather-Connolly-100

Heather Connolly is Senior Lecturer in Leicester Business School at De Montfort University and a member of the Contemporary Research on Organisations, Work and Employment (CROWE) group and the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA).

This post was originally posted on the SPERI blog, University of Sheffield.

Social exclusion and labour rights in the banlieues of Paris, Part II

Trade union support for undocumented migrant workers is taking place in an atmosphere of growing stigmatisation and social tension.

Heather Connolly

Last month I returned to the banlieues of Paris on a research visit, four months after the November attacks, and during the week of the terrorist attacks in Brussels on 22nd March.  Whilst in Paris issues of social division and community cohesion inevitably dominated political debates and press headlines.

 

Anecdotally, public reaction in the mainstream media in France in the days after the Brussels attacks, suggested a lack of understanding of past and present French (and European) immigration and the citizenship status of ethnic minorities from the banlieues.  Calls were made by some members of the public to send the terrorists, many of whom had French or Belgian nationality, ‘back home’.  This sentiment has been somewhat fuelled by François Hollande’s proposals, as a direct response to the November 2015 attacks, to make controversial changes to the constitution to strip militants convicted of terror attacks of their French nationality (proposals which have now been dropped).

 

Other important contextualising factors feeding political debates and public perceptions around immigration and social exclusion include the current and emerging tensions surrounding the migrant and refugee crises in Europe, and restrictions of movement and increased police powers as a result of France’s continuing ‘state of emergency’ (état d’urgence).

 

As was the case in the Paris attacks, the terrorists in Belgium grew up in the suburbs of Brussels, with high levels of unemployment, particularly amongst second and third generation youths of immigrant origin.

 

Immigration flows to France are often linked into debates on models of integration and patterns of social exclusion of migrants.  France’s assimilationist model has in many ways failed in relation to the integration of past flows of immigrants.  As a result second and third generations of immigrant origin find it difficult to access employment and often remain trapped in the banlieues of Paris.

 

I was in Paris to follow up on my research on trade union responses to immigrants and those known as the sans papiers (undocumented workers) (which Part I of this blog explored), and found a somewhat depressing picture emerging.  Immigrants and especially the sans papiers are increasingly being stigmatised and placed under restrictions while trying to live and work in France.  This situation isn’t being helped by the current political debates mentioned above.

 

Signs initially looked better for the sans papiers when in 2012 the circulaire de regularisation, which sets out guidance and defined sets of conditions for administrators processing regularisation claims was introduced in response to growing unrest among sans papiers workers.  Trade unions, particularly the CGT, have been an important resource for the sans papiers in fighting for criteria for regularisation and in making sure they are applied, even though the circulaire has no legal status and doesn’t give automatic rights to work permits.  The strategy seems to be working and since 2010 the union has obtained some 10,000 regularisations of migrants.

 

At the same time there have been increasing sanctions on employers found to be employing undocumented migrants, with two circulaires in 2013 against illegal work and against irregular immigration.  Also, there are some who are critical of the circulaire de regularisation, claiming that there have been fewer regularisations per year since its introduction. During last month’s field work with my French colleague Dr Sylvie Contrepois, one undocumented Senegalese worker, who had found regular work in France for 24 years, suddenly found himself without work as a result of the greater restrictions on employers, and without recourse to any rights to unemployment benefit or state aid.

 

The CGT, one of the largest French trade unions has provided a ‘permanence’ (advice service) for the sans papiers in the banlieues of Paris since 2014.  The union has between 70 and 80 sans papiers attending the ‘permanence’ every week with the aim being to help the migrants to obtain work permits, and the immediate aim to protect them from having problems with employers and the police.

 

The advice given to the sans papiers demonstrates the uneasy nature of accessing labour rights as an undocumented worker in France.  One Senegalese union activist we spoke to (still a sans papier himself) explained that many of the migrants did not understand the process of accessing their rights in France.  There were heated exchanges between the sans papiers and the union activists advising the migrants, with some suggesting that it was particularly the Bangladeshi migrants who weren’t so aware of the process for obtaining papers.  In asking what the process was we discovered that it was important first to obtain fake papers, then find a job, stay in that job for a certain amount of time, collect some pay slips and then come to the union, who would then be able to help with their case for a work permit.  The union was able to draw on the conditions set out in circulaire de regularisation to make the case for regularisation, even where workers were working with fake papers.

 

By offering a service to undocumented workers, in spite of its service-based appearance, the union aims to identify and call out poor employer practices and force them to apply regulations.  The broader political goal is to fight illegal work, prevent social dumping and to encourage self-organising and future mobilisations of sans papiers.  The union also hopes for the greater integration and involvement of the sans papiers within the wider union.  Whether trade unions are able to build and sustain this kind of solidarity and action remains a key challenge, but an important one in such uncertain times.

 

Heather Connolly is Senior Lecturer in Leicester Business School at De Montfort University and a member of the Heather-Connolly-100Contemporary Research on Organisations, Work and Employment (CROWE) group and the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA).

This post was originally posted on the SPERI blog, University of Sheffield.

 

Social exclusion and labour rights in the banlieues of Paris

NOTE: this article was originally posted on the SPERI blog in December 2015. A follow-up post, discussing a French trade union’s work with undocumented migrants in more detail, will be published in April 2016.

 The terrorist attacks in Paris have again highlighted the problem of social divisions in France and the extent to which they lead to feelings of exclusion that in some way incite violent responses.  It appears that some of the terrorists grew up in or had links to the banlieues (or suburbs) of Paris, where there are high concentrations of immigrants and minority ethnic groups, as well as high levels of unemployment and poverty and a recent history of racial tensions.  Many of the youth in the banlieues are unemployed, with the unemployment rate for immigrant youth above 30% according to the OECD.  More generally, migrants and their children are also over-represented in low qualified jobs, with workers of North African origins experiencing the highest ethnic penalty in terms of access to employment.

France has a republican model of integration, built on the universalist values of the 1789 Revolution of secularism and equal individual rights for all.  Recognition of cultural difference or ethnic communities is considered unacceptable.  In contrast to the British multiculturalist model, where ‘difference’ – whether of ethnicity or religion – is tolerated or even prized, ‘difference’ in France is seen as a form of sectarianism and a threat to the republic.  The French notion of laïcité, dating back to the Revolution, actively blocks religious interference in affairs of state and public manifestations of religious identity in public spaces, including workplaces.  The problem for the recent generations of Muslim immigrants to France is that the proclaimed universalism of republican values – and the focus on assimilation – has meant that many Muslims feel that, if they want to be ‘French’, they must learn to be citizens of the republic first and Muslims second.  This is a difficult and, for some, impossible task.

My recent research has looked at how trade unions have responded to migrant and minority workers in France.  As context, it should be said that trade unions in France have one of the lowest levels of membership density among OECD countries, with only around 8% of workers being members of a union.  Moreover, the union movement is divided along ideological and political lines.  It also confronts ideological employers, which means that social dialogue tends to be conflictual and fairly hollow.

However, trade unions in France still have a high level of institutional embeddedness, manifest in the level of collective bargaining attained with over 90% of workers covered by some form of collective agreement.  They also benefit from relatively high levels of worker turnout in workplace representative elections which are organised every 2-4 years.  Elected worker representatives participate and negotiate at all levels of the organisation and enjoy a legal framework for employee representation that is the envy of trade unions in the UK, including a right to strike enshrined in the French constitution.

My previous work on French trade unions has shown that the institutional embeddedness of trade unions gives them access to resources (time, space and financing) that allows them to represent the wider interests of workers and mount campaigns to organise workers who are excluded from regulated spaces, both inside and outside the workplace.  The unionisation rate among immigrant workers is only around 2%.  However, this figure is based on nationality, not ethnic origin, as ethnic monitoring is not permitted in France.  Migrants and their descendants are likely to be counted as ‘nationals’ as soon as they access French citizenship. This of course poses problems in terms of how we can study issues of social exclusion and discrimination, as the data needed often doesn’t exist.

What is emerging from my research in France is that trade union behaviour is still fundamentally shaped by the assimilationist model of integration.  For migrants and minorities working in France this has generally meant that they have had to leave their ethnic and religious identities at the factory gates, the office door and even the picket line.  One trade union activist to whom I spoke about Muslim workers taking part in a strike said that there was a ‘time for everything’ and added that he had told Muslim workers that praying on the picket line was not appropriate.  There was no issue with the workers being Muslim; only the public demonstration of religious identity.

Attitudes have been changing, however, as evidenced in the debates on the wearing of headscarves.  In a recent case where a woman was fired for refusing to remove the veil when asked to do so by her employer, trade unions supported the court’s decision which allowed women to wear the headscarf when working for private employers and thus not involved in providing public services.  There has also been some recognition and support by trade unions for workers discriminated against on the basis of nationality and immigrant status in the past. This was the case recently when 800 Moroccan workers, working on private contracts for the public railways since the 1970s, won a case of discrimination, as they had been excluded from the benefits and status of the public-sector workers alongside whom they worked.

Even though they still approach the issue from a mainly race-blind and social rights perspective, trade unions have made attempts to integrate undocumented migrant workers who have been excluded from accessing their labour rights.  Trade unions in and around Paris have done a lot of campaigning around and organising of the sans papiers workers, a large number of whom are of African origin.  Ever since the 1970s trade unions have been in favour of the regularisation of undocumented workers and from the early 2000s onwards organised mass strikes of these workers to demand regularisation and respect for their labour rights.  As a result, over 5,000 workers have been regularised in recent years and the campaigns continue, with greater numbers of undocumented workers organising campaigns themselves with the support of the trade unions.

This brings me back to the terrorist attacks in Paris and the subsequent discussions around social exclusion.  There surely now exists a double challenge for trade unions to act as a force for integration for socially excluded members of society.  Firstly, migrant and minority workers tend to work either in the margins or not at all, which means trade unions find it difficult to access and represent them.  Secondly, the denial of ethnic and racial differences means that structural and institutional forms of discrimination and exclusion are ignored or not explicitly addressed, which can easily lead to a lack of engagement with the trade union movement on the part of workers who feel they have to suppress their core identities.

By contrast, the successes of the sans papiers campaign shows that trade unions can organise in sectors with high concentrations of migrants and minority workers and can demand labour rights for those working and living on the margins of society.  France needs its trade unions to build on this example.

 

Heather-Connolly-100

 Heather Connolly is Senior Lecturer in Leicester Business School at De Montfort University and a member of the Contemporary Research on Organisations, Work and Employment (CROWE) group and the Centre for Urban Research on Austerity (CURA).

The UK labour market and the visible hand of George Osborne.

George Osborne’s 2016 budget appears to have been a much less successful political exercise than his immediate post-election efforts. This is perhaps unsurprising given the contradictions involved in the joint pursuit of austerity, traditional Conservative instincts, and the attempt to manage party tensions on Europe through the mechanism of a referendum on European Union membership at a juncture where populist anti-elite pressures of varying political stripes are widespread and growing.

As an employment relations researcher, contradictions are particularly evident in the labour market sphere. In particular, it is worth thinking about the relations between the legislative attack on trade union freedom of the Trade Union Bill (which coincidentally sustained non-fundamental, but non-trivial damage in the House of Lords on the the day of the budget), the National Living Wage, the continued confusion around the introduction of an Apprenticeship Levy, and the wider approach to political economy of the current government.

Of these, the Trade Union Bill is the simplest to decipher, representing as it does a straightforward continuity with Thatcherism. Nobody with experience of the 1980s and 1990s history of regulation of industrial relations would be particularly surprised that a Conservative government would pursue such policies. In industrial relations terms most initial academic commentary seems to have concentrated on the increased balloting thresholds for strike action, and to a lesser extent on the issue of trade union facility time. Important as these are, it is regrettable that the proposal to lift the ban on using agency workers to replace permanent staff during strikes, which represents a fundamental challenge to the right to strike as understood in ILO conventions, has not taken greater prominence in the debates on and opposition to the Bill.

The National Living Wage and Apprenticeship Levy, however, need somewhat more thinking about. Having worked as a researcher on wage protection at the time that the National Minimum Wage was proposed and introduced by the first Blair government, and witnessed the extent of Thatcherite-Conservative opposition to the “interference” in the labour market that statutory wage protection represents, it is clear that Osborne represents something of a departure here from Keith Joseph.

The current upgrading of the minimum wage, while welcome if taken on its own, does not represent a progressive policy, coming as it does in the context of a shrinking of the benefits system that of course is profoundly regressive. It is also worth noting in passing the “National Living Wage” is nothing of the kind – any basic or minimum income level, however calculated, clearly has to be expressed on a weekly or monthly basis. Very obviously, if sustenance comes from waged labour, then an hourly rate is only as good as the multiplier of how many hours of work are paid for. Given those at the bottom of the labour market are generally on marginal part-time or zero-hours contracts, a vocabulary of “living” wage is not appropriate. That George Osborne is prepared to use this language for political reasons is one thing, but those in favour of redistribution to the working poor should not.

Nonetheless, proposing non-trivial increases to minimum wages, in the context of austerian governance, does represent something of a change of thinking as to how the right goes about shrinking the state. The Thatcherite position of avoiding ‘constraints’ on employers in order to encourage the free market to clear has morphed into a position where the over-riding imperative is that the poor are not sustained by the state, even if this involves what a previous generation of Conservatives would have termed “interference” in labour markets. Whether George Osborne is a convert to established social democratic arguments that increasing minimum wages has positive effects on productivity is unclear. Still, to some extent, austerity seems to have trumped the “old school” brand of neo-liberalism of the Thatcher/Major era.

This is also the case with the apprenticeship levy; essentially, a pay-bill tax on large employers to be dedicated to apprenticeship training, sweetened in the Budget by a government top-up. How this will work, in particular what the resources raised will be used for in an, at-best, confusing system of initial vocational training (see the work of CROWE colleague Jonathan Payne) is unclear. However, some of the motives are not dissimilar to the minimum wage increase; vocational training needs to be improved, and the state does not want to bear the financial or coordination costs, notwithstanding the exceptionally poor degree of coordination between firms on skills and training in the UK. It is worth noting that in my conversations with practitioners aiming to attract foreign direct investment to the UK, it is clear that the idea of a levy has a substantial degree of opposition from mobile firms, including many that do require advanced skills. Again, while individual labour market policies need to be looked at within the context of the overall political economy and distributional policies of the government, it remains interesting that the Osborne strategy does in places require a fairly visible hand.

almond

Phil Almond is Professor of Comparative Employment Relations at DMU. His research interests are in the theoretical and practical challenges of the governance of work and employment in contemporary global capitalism, with specific expertise on the social relations of multinationals.