Some points on the general labour situation in France, 2005

Short article on changes to the 35 hour law, production relocation, minimum service in the transport sector...

These were the questions over which most of the confrontations between the government and the official representatives of the workers took place during autumn 2004.

All the confrontations up to now have stayed on a symbolic level, and which, apart from single action days, did not lead to a mobilisation of those actually effected. It is mostly a political confrontation about how much influence the unions should have when it comes to future restructuring on a state and company level.

Changes to the 35-hour rule
The conservative government wants to bring in more changes, even after the original 35-hour per week rule was already weakened in January 2003 with for example, the extension of possible overtime per year from 130 hours to 180 hours. The debate takes place under the pressure of propaganda about closures, i.e. actual relocation of production. The unions say the 2003 changes are sufficient, and anyway hardly any companies took them up, showing that the debate is politically, not practically significant. The companies are demanding the right to negotiate directly with the employees over work times, without going through the union, something Bosch, Doux, Sediver and other large companies have already done. The other main issue on the table is lowering the costs of overtime for large firms from 10 - 25 per cent extra to only 10 percent extra and getting rid of the extra breaks in overtime work. With the introduction of unpaid longer working hours at Bosch which was agreed to by the largest union there, employers are seeing a green light for more demands. [You can read more about the 35-hour week and the associated flexibilization at ]

Relocations
This year the Unions published a list of 50 companies who have relocated in 2004. Microelectronics mostly moved to eastern Europe and Asia, small production such as household appliances and a few call centres moved to Francophone North Africa. Here are a few examples: Sediver, who produce electrical equipment, have said that if the 300 workers don’t agree to a 25 percent wage cut the factory will move to Brazil and China saving 150 workplaces in France. Snappon GDX, part of the US Gencorp car part company, who produce for PSA and Renault have moved their factory from Chartres to the Czech Republic. The machinery was moved under protection from riot police after workers had built barricades and chained themselves to the machinery.

An electronic car part manufacturer, Vishay, sacked 300 workers in Colmar and moved production to China and Hungary. Management claim that the factory in Shanghai produce at 60 percent lower costs. In Morocco there are already 60 call centres with 7,000 workers who work for the French market. It is apparently 40 percent cheaper for companies there with an average wage at 400 Euros, compared with 1,100 in France. There have been protests by call centre workers in France, including at Timing and Wanadoo. However, in 2003 only 5 percent of new call centre jobs of French companies were created abroad.

But these examples have been well publicized and are forever being used to push through worse work conditions. There is however strong evidence against this theory that all jobs are being lost abroad. After China, France has the most direct forging investment of any other country. Behind the real redundancies and factory closures there are other figures: despite the protested closure of the STMicroelectronics plant in Rennes the US company has continually increased the number of French employees from 2,400 in 1990 to 10,500 by 2004. Only 5 percent of the whole capital invested is invested abroad.

The minimum service in the case of strikes in the transport sector
There is a question as to whether this is an attack on the backbone of the last big militant sector - the transport workers in the public sector - or whether it is another popular campaign of the right to win votes by doing something against ‘the individual interests of a group of workers holding the citizens to ransom’. Despite the government calling it a “minimum service” law, what they want is not so much the guarantee of a minimum service (as they have in Spain, Italy and Portugal) but rather the duty to give prior notice of strikes. This would be an extension of the notice laws introduced by de Gaulle after the miners’ strikes in the 60s including details of affected workplaces and number of workers likely to take part.

The CGT are saying, “The best prevention of conflict is dialog”, signing “conflict prevention” deals with management and so forth. On 4 October there was an action day at SNCF for higher wages and against the changes in the right to strike. The running of the trains was not affected. On 25 November the unions mobilized for a demo in Paris with 50,000 railway workers and some strikes about pensions and also against the new “cheap line” iDTGV that is seen as a first step towards privatization of the SNCF.

From prol-position news #1, 3/2005