France - Working conditions

Some 25.6 million workers were employed in France by the end of 1999. France's labor force resembles that of many advanced industrial nations and is one of the most highly-educated in Europe. The GDP per employee per hour was US$34, larger than Italy, the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom. France ranks third in Europe in employee productivity, and fourth in labor costs.

Unionism in France has declined dramatically over time and currently stands at half the level of the United States and reached the lowest level in Europe in 1997. Traditionally, unionism is stronger in Europe than the United States, and unions fight for non-wage rights more than for issues such as job security and vacations. The major labor union in France is the Confederation Generale du Travail (CGT) with about 2.4 million members. It is controlled by communists. The independent labor union, Force Ouvriere, is estimated to have about 1 million members. Another independent union serving white-collar labor is Confederation Generale des Cadres with 340,000 members. Other labor unions are the Conseil National du Patronat Francais (Patronat National Council of French Employers, CNPF) and the socialist-leaning labor union Confederation Francaise Democratique du Travail (CFDT) with about 800,000 members.

The decline of unions in France has not left the labor force without protection. There are still strong laws and institutional arrangements that give workers a say in running the workplace. The labor code sets standards regarding issues ranging from the workweek to vacations. In companies with more than 10 employees, workers are represented at various decision-making levels and are free to file grievances, individually or collectively, with the courts against the employer. Worker-employer relations are peaceful overall. A total of 8.4 working days are lost per 1,000 working days in France, making it one of the lowest strike countries of Europe. The same number is well over 40 days in Spain.

Another challenge the French labor force faces is the eroding job security as a result of adjustment to the common market policies of the EU. Cheaper labor from such countries as Greece and Spain may drive unskilled French workers out of jobs. Adding to this problem is the possibility that France's skilled workers may find extended opportunities in other member countries. In 1999, the government introduced a 35-hour work week to ease the unemployment problem by creating more positions for the unemployed. (The 35-hour workweek is paid on a 39 hour basis.) Starting in the year 2000, companies gradually phased in the 35-hour workweek schedule. Businesses were vehemently opposed to the initiative, though some agreed to it after negotiations with the government. Firms that implement the rule earlier than they are required to are promised government aid based on the number of workers they employ, which is expected to be a significant burden on the national budget. The government has proposed dipping into the unemployment benefits fund to pay the costs of the new policy.

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