Wednesday, July 21, 2004

The natives are getting restless

There are growing indications that the famous 35 hour week, the flagship of the Jospin government’s economic policy is becoming more and more unpopular.

Last month Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac’s successor-in-waiting and present Economics Minister, announced that in his opinion the law was a serious handicap. It made the French economy uncompetitive and inflexible. The direct cost to the French government and business firms was 16bn euros (£10.6bn; $19bn) a year.

A new survey conducted among heads of small firms has shown that these, unsurprisingly, are against the legislation. 93 per cent of those polled said they wanted greater flexibility in working hours.

Nor are workers all that pleased with it. The idea behind the law was that it would reduce unemployment in France. (This shows that French politicians understand as little economics as British ones, which ought to be reassuring but is not.)   Instead, more firms have transposed their operations to Eastern Europe.

Eventually, they, too, will be hit by the various EU restrictions, though not the specifically French 35-hour week, but in the meantime they benefit from the restrictive practices of most West European countries.   At least one factory has decided to do something about it. According to the BBC World Service:

The majority of the 820 workers at the Bosch factory in Venissieux, near Lyon, said they would rather work 36 hours without any financial compensation for the extra hour than see their plant relocated to the Czech Republic.

They have also agreed on a three-year pay freeze. Robert Bosch have made it clear that this was a one-off agreement, to deal with a specific situation and would not be replicated in other plants. (Not at the moment, anyway.)

But the unions are getting worried. This was their policy and they are not going to give it up. "When the school year starts in September, we are going to organise union actions to win back our rights," CGT union official Serge Trucello told Reuters news agency.

Although, given the alternatives, some trade unions have actually backed the Bosch workers. Separately, workers in Germany are beginning to turn their backs on the 35-hour week. Employees at two plants belonging to the Siemens engineering firm have voted to work 40 hours without any extra compensation rather than see their jobs being relocated to Hungary.

Negotiations are going on between unions and management  in the Daimler/Chrysler factories. Could common sense be actually dawning in the two dinosaur economies of the European Union?

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