FRENCH FIRMS FACE SHORTER WORK WEEK

PARIS — A law mandating a 35-hour work week in France seems to be backfiring, at least in the fashion industry.
The law — the flagship policy of prime minister Lionel Jospin’s socialist government — took full effect Feb. 1 for companies with more than 20 employees. It was intended to reduce the high unemployment rate by forcing firms to hire new people to pick up the work left by existing staff, who must now leave after 35 hours.
But that’s not happening in the fashion business.
Instead, companies are largely redistributing work and devising ways to parlay a seeming impediment into an advantage.
“We’ve tried to turn the 35-hour week into an opportunity,” explained Christophe Baratier, director of human resources at Yves Saint Laurent. YSL hammered out a plan to shave off four hours from the previous 39-hour work week last July, making it one of the first couture houses here to reach an agreement with its staff.
Since fashion is highly seasonal, houses here have generally negotiated deals for longer hours during peak periods, like those leading up to collections, and shorter days during the off season.
For example, YSL studio workers clock a 46-hour week during the collection crunch, but work 31 hours in its wake. Employees in the commercial and communications divisions go home four hours early on Fridays.
“We’ve tried to put the system to work for us,” Baratier added.
Still, YSL, which hasn’t hired one extra worker since the law took effect, has had to deal with costs linked to the legislation. For example, the dearth of workers during the off periods poses problems, because although schedules are less hectic, there is still work to be done.
“We’ve had to deal with a lack of manpower after the collections because we have to compensate for overtime,” agreed designer Agnes b., who favors the 35-hour week “in principle,” but would like to see the law tailored to the specific needs of the fashion industry. “The schedule might be less rigorous [after collections], but there’s always work to be done. It’s become a burden for us.”
Agnes b. has hired a few new workers since complying with the law in March 1999. (The law was approved two years ago, but only recently has been fully effective for firms with 20 or more workers.)
The lack of flexibility in the ruling is one of the biggest complaints across the board. So, in an effort to make it more workable, Medef, the employers federation that has been an outspoken critic of the law, has proposed a plan that would put greater emphasis on individual company contracts with less interference from the government.
Such a solution would seem to suit the fashion world.
“We need greater flexibility in the law because of the nature of our business,” said Gerald Asaria, president of Lanvin, which has yet to reach a final accord with its employees. “It’s very complicated to find the right solution.”
One complication is the high cost of workers. A 35-hour week at the same pay could eat into company profits, economists and executives agreed.
Another is the lack of qualified manpower. Even with 2.5 million people out of a job, many companies have a difficult time filling positions. And although there is a shortage of qualified people, some potential workers are unwilling to give up France’s generous welfare payments, which often exceed minimum wage.
“We can’t always find someone to fill the job,” said Jean-Pierre Goddet, international business director at Leonard. “The situation is becoming a nightmare.”
“For the outside world, it’s unthinkable that France is slashing the work load while most countries are working more in order to keep up with global competition,” said Marie-Pierre Ripert, an economist at Caise des Depots & Consignations who recently published a report on the issue.
She said most of the 152,000 jobs created in the last two years were the offshoot of growth in the economy. Since 1998, unemployment here has been reduced from almost 13 percent to an eight-year low of 10.2 percent in February.
But, Ripert claimed, “the 35-hour week has probably done more to hinder growth than spur it on.”
“For us, it’s been horrible,” said Laura Ungaro, who oversees communications and other business at the house led by her husband, Emanuel Ungaro, which struck an accord with its workers. Ungaro doesn’t plan to hire new workers because of the law.
“Even more than the financial burden, it has hurt our level of concentration,” said Ungaro. “Each person here has a specific job, and when they have to go home early, it cuts into their productivity. We can’t just hire someone to come in for a few hours a week to pick up the slack. It’s unrealistic.”
Other critics of the new rules are quick to point out that although the government has forced firms with more than 20 workers to implement the scheme, the government itself has been unable to find a solution in France’s public service sector. Firms with fewer than 20 employees have until 2002 to comply.
“It’s one of the law’s great paradoxes,” observed a Medef spokesman. “They [the government] tell everyone to find a solution at all costs, while saying that they need more time to find an accord in the public sector because the law is too complicated to implement.”
Many of France’s numerous civil servants already work 35 hours a week, including those in public transportation. And with the new law, they also want to see their work hours shortened.
This month, postal workers in Nice went on strike in protest. Before capitulating, the government said a 35-hour week was inapplicable in the sector due to the nature of the work.
In any case, most fashion executives agreed that their sector was unique and must be allowed to make exceptions to the law.
“The 35 hours obliges houses to shorten the down time and even out the high-charged months of work,” said Didier Grumbach, the president of the Chambre Syndicale, which just recently negotiated the 35-hour plan with unions on behalf of its members.
Still, Grumbach sees a positive side to the 35-hour week: He said it would probably reduce the layoffs endemic to the post-collection down time.

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