Sunday, August 24, 2003
Power to the people
The French social system is incredibly supportive of the working man and woman. Incredibly.
If you come to France to start a small company, you will find that the social charges above and beyond what you pay to the employee are huge, indeed so often crippling. Whereas in the UK and elsewhere you might figure the total cost of an employee as 150% of his or her salary, in France that would be more like 200%.
The upshot is that if you come to France, as I did this time, as an employee, you are amazingly cushioned against the natural result of this exorbitance, the demise of your employer. It balances out in the end of course, but I suppose it leaves the entrepreneur feeling victimized.
I may get some of this wrong. Don’t use it to plan your start-up in France or to negotiate with your employer. This is just how it appeared to me as an employee.
There’s unemployment in France. There’s recession or the gloomy prospect of it. There’s a need to find a deterrent against economic hardship.
To the French, this suggests outright social engineering. In other countries, you might hear of tax-breaks for start-ups, venture capital being encouraged to invest, youth training schemes and programmes to encourage returning to work for less.
Here, the government decided to limit the working week. If nobody could be made to work longer than 35 hours a week, more people would have to be employed to do the jobs. Perhaps that’s how it was thought of. Perhaps not as simple as that.
Either way, an act was passed by the French government to limit the working week to a strict 35 hours.
Then the professional classes, les cadres, protested (along with their employers) that some jobs required more dedication, more flexibility, offered more rewards for unsocial commitments. Either way, white-collar workers, they said, couldn’t be constrained by this law.
So Mk II of the law was passed allowing for professionals and executives to work 37, 39, perhaps 41 or 43 hours but… in return, their employers must give them, outright and without prejudice, extra paid holiday. Yup. That’s the deal, Mr Entrepreneur: if you want to be able to ask any of your workers to stay until six or seven in the evening to get the project on the road, you’ll just have to let them have more holiday. Permanently.
The calculation is severe. To establish the possibility that your staff might be asked to work 39 hours a week, you might have to give them another 15 or 20 days a year off. The negotiation must be entered into formally by management and workers. It is supervised and specified by approved third-parties who will represent whoever is getting the worst of this deal until the terms of the law are met squarely. The ‘accord’ must be approved by all concerned.
It’s tough. In other countries, I’d guess, the working week might be defined as 37.5 hours but many workers would quite casually work a little extra when the pressure is on. Overtime might be paid or time given in lieu. In France it is specified by law that you should not do so unless your employer has given you extra holiday, permanently in your contract, not casually in lieu or pro rata.
The whole scheme is called RTT, réduction du temps de travail, reduction of work time, and, while feeling like a blessing to the worker, is, no doubt, a blow to the employer.
It’s all part of that great socialist experiment, the French republic.
Starting up on your own
Well, I did it - twice - in England. I’d think twice about doing it in France.
Firstly, there’s the social charges.
Second, the RTT, which means for a start-up that you’re going to have to concede some difficult conditions of work and - much more frightening - some of your new employees will have come from firms where the RTT negotiations gave them what might to you seem like ridiculous contract terms.
Thirdly, there’s the bureaucracy. I can only imagine what that’s like.
And if you don’t speak perfect French (and I certainly don’t) you’ll never know what’s going on.
However, coming here as an employee is a much better prospect.
I am very pleased to say.