Bosch leads breach of French 35-hour week

20th July 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, July 20 (AFP) - The French 35-hour-week, an audacious experiment to reduce high unemployment, seemed to be at a crossroads Tuesday following a vote by Bosch workers to work extra time without pay to save their jobs.

PARIS, July 20 (AFP) - The French 35-hour-week, an audacious experiment to reduce high unemployment, seemed to be at a crossroads Tuesday following a vote by Bosch workers to work extra time without pay to save their jobs.  

French politicians and unions were in a state of angst over a vote by workers at a subsidiary of German group Bosch to accept extra unpaid work to avert the re-location of a plant to the Czech Republic.  

The arrangement outraged several leading trade unions but elicited a cautious reaction from employers who have chafed under France's 35-hour work week.  

Government officials, who have sought modifications in the 35-hour law, have sent ambiguous signals on the course of events, and made no notable comment after the vote.  

But the deal is nonetheless being seen as something of a watershed in the 35-hour-week experiment.  

The Bosch workers, who make auto parts at a factory at Venissieux in southern central France, voted by 98 percent to accept working 36 hours instead of 35 hours a week without extra pay in order to keep their plant in France.  

The employees also accepted on Monday that pay would be frozen for three years.   Fewer than 2.0 percent of the 820 employees rejected the deal. Opposition from 10 percent was needed to obstruct an agreement.  

The head of human resources at Bosch France, a subsidiary of the German Bosch parent, said the vote gave the factory a new lease on life.  

"We don't plan to apply this measure to other sites in France," Luc Herve told the newspaper Les Echos.  

"This accord is not a ... reference but a specific response to a particular situation."   Other employers were notably discreet in their reaction at a time when the 35-hour week is becoming a red-hot political and social issue.  

"In business, no one has an interest in breaking the silence. It upsets the reigning calm," one employer - who asked not to be named - told the newspaper Le Figaro.  

The paper said that at retailer Carrefour, consultations were under way with employees who would be willing to forgo certain rest days in exchange for pay.  

At the European Aeronautic, Defence and Space company (EADS), according to Le Figaro, officials have not ruled out adjustments to the 35-hour law, but only on a voluntary basis.  

Several leading French trade union federations meanwhile expressed indignation at the outcome of the Bosch vote, saying that "blackmail" by Bosch had succeeded. Just one union, the CFDT, said that the vote had occurred in an "exceptional context".  

At the FO, Jean-Claude Mailly said the agreement was an example of "blackmail using employment" which was "being experienced at company level" and illustrated the "destruction of collective negotiation".  

For the CGT, Maryse Dumas said that despite statements by French President Jacques Chirac and several ministers condemning such pressure, their "reticence" in the face of such action showed that they were "totally compliant."  

The vote by the Bosch workers underlined signals by the centre-right government that it wants to see flexibility in the implementation of the 35-hour-week, introduced by its Socialist predecessor.  

But the government, which has suffered severe election setbacks recently, is mindful that it must strike the right chord with public anxiety about the effects of global competition and of attempts to deal with government overspending.  

Chirac said in his Bastille Day interview on July 14 insisted that the 35-hour week would remain the legal benchmark but that workers who wanted to work longer hours for pay should not be barred from negotiating with management.  

However, only hours before the Bosch workers accepted to work 36 hours instead of 35 hours, junior French Budget Minister Dominique Bussereau had condemned on Monday a similar agreement by some workers at Siemens in Germany as "blackmail" which the French government would not accept.  

He said that it was unacceptable for management to force longer hours on workers under a take-it-or-leave-it threat to switch activity to locations in eastern Europe where labour costs are far lower.  

The last government, as a main plank of its policy, reduced the length of the standard working week from 39 hours to 35 hours as a way of pushing employers to take on extra staff, thereby reducing high unemployment.  

The initial law does not yet apply fully to small businesses and overall about two thirds of employees in France are covered by the 35-hour framework.  

The current government, which never liked the idea, was elected on a promise not to change the legal work week but to allow it to work more flexibly, saying that it imposed excessive costs on industry and that its effectiveness was doubtful since unemployment remains high.




Subject: French news

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