The rise in job insecurity in the French workplace

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The problem of unemployment is France is well-documented and discussed each month when the latest jobless totals are published. Less well-known, however, is the issue of underemployment affecting people on short-term contracts, in temporary jobs, on workplace experience or those trying to become self-employed. As Mathilde Goanec explains, there are two constant factors in this world of workplace insecurity – a rapid turnover in jobs and ever-greater problems in eventually finding full-time fixed employment.

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Job insecurity, the fear of constantly moving in and out of work, is on the increase in France. Yet it rarely receives anything like the attention show to the issue of unemployment. The problem is that the very word “insecurity” is a catch-all term that can refer to workers with financial problems, unstable professional careers and social poverty. And when a subject is hard to categorise it is often swept quietly under the carpet.

Yet when it comes to job insecurity the situation looks clear enough: beneath the nearly three-and-a-half million people declared as unemployed in October, the substrata of underemployed people is continuing to grow. A study by the official French statistical agency INSEE shows that in the private sector in the last 30 years “professional mobility” has grown by 25%, new forms of employment have risen by 150% and the turnover in non-permanent contracts by more than 350%. “If we're talking about underemployment we're at six million people today and perhaps even more,” says sociologist Dominique Glayman, a specialist in temporary work and work placements and lecturer at Paris XII university. “Flexible and multiple work is full of risks but it is now fully part of the system. Underemployment  has not simply been considered as a [career] hitch in France for 30 years now,” he says.

Temporary work is often seen as an advanced form of job insecurity even though an increase in the number of such jobs is also taken as a sign that the economy is recovering. After a major lull in 2008, the prevalence of temporary work is taking off again and has now overtaken pre-financial crisis levels; in the second quarter of 2016 France had 616,000 temporary workers. Each year two million people take up temporary jobs, often young men with few qualifications who work in manufacturing, the building trade or logistics.

However, temporary work is not the sole preserve of the young and is not simply a transition stage at the chaotic start of a career. Though people aged 20 to 24 are over-represented, some 65% of temporary workers are in reality aged between 25 and 50. And because of unemployment among older people, this form of work could well become a future avenue for those approaching retirement. “The big dream for employers is using temporary work to manage career transitions,” says André Fadda from the leading CGT trade union.

Temporary work has thus become a regular feature in the workplace without ever being a career in itself, except for a few highly-qualified workers who are able to sell their labour at a high price. For others it is a period of instability that can be difficult to live with – the average length of such jobs is two weeks according to government figures – and not really better paid than other employment, as temporary workers do not enjoy the right to five weeks of paid holiday a year. Nor do they get annual bonuses or accrue extra rights through seniority. A new form of employment status, an indefinite temporary work contract with job agencies in which the agency worker gets paid benefits by the agency when they are not working, has not take off either. By January 2016 just 6,000 of these contracts had been signed.

Some have wondered whether permanent jobs or fixed-term contracts in France are gradually and quietly being supplanted by temporary work. The relative stability of the number of people in temporary work, apart from the 2008 period, suggest that is not generally the case. But in some sectors temporary staff can now sometimes make up half of the workforce. “In the automotive [sector], for example, where mobile crews made up of 30%, 40%, 50% temporary workers are operating, my theory is that it's a way of managing dirty work,” says Dominique Glaymann. “It also lowers everyone's demands in relation to working conditions. And then, it's not in the same place in the budget lines [in company accounts]. An employee is part of the workforce; a temporary worker comes under a supplier's service. Shareholders don't regard them in the same light.”

Explosion in number of short fixed-term contracts

The leap in job insecurity is mostly found in relation to short-term contracts, and in particular with those that last just for a day, or at least under two weeks. They have grown inexorably in number over the last 30 years. According to figures from INSEE and the French Employment Ministry, some 9.2% of all jobs were on fixed-term contracts in 2015, against 4% in 1982, and above all they accounted for 87% for all new hirings. In 2012, the start of President François Hollande's term of office, the figure was 80%.

Another sign of the state of the jobs market is that half of all fixed-term contracts are what are known as “custom” contracts. In other words contracts that, unlike the standard fixed-term agreements, can be renewed any number of times and which allows one to avoid waiting periods. These rolling contracts were originally designed as exceptions – the aim of short-term contracts is that they should lead to indefinite job contracts - and were initially intended to be confined to particular sectors, such as the audiovisual industry (which has blithely used and abused them since). Gradually, however, these rolling contracts have been extended to other sectors (see the list here). “This constrained, controlled practice is starting to spread,” confirms Claude Picart, an expert at INSEE and the author of one of the few broad studies on turnover in the workplace.

The dividing line between fixed-term and indefinite employment contracts is not the only key aspect of the French labour market, as new “atypical” forms of employment have sprung up in recent years. Earlier this month the International Labour Organization (ILO) raised concerns about the “risk” posed by such new forms of employment. Christophe Everaere, professor of management at Lyon III university in eastern France, has even written a book on the subject. He cast his net wide in an attempt to define all those jobs that were not on full-time indefinite contracts, as well as those cases where workers do not physically work inside a business, to ensure he “caught those who fly under the radar”. This includes people in the service sector especially and those fledgling one-person start-ups known as auto-entrepreneurs.

In 2015 there were just over a million auto-entrepreneurs, with only half of them declaring a profit, and with 40% also employed elsewhere. They have taken on the role of entrepreneurs either by choice or through necessity. There are also the auto-entrepreneurs working through takeaway food delivery firm Deliveroo and minicab app firm Uber, who are seeking customers rather than working in companies. “The approach has changed,” says Christophe Everaere.

The other category below the radar is that of people on work placements, a practice that postpones a person's full entry into the workplace. The figures are unclear and sometimes contradictory but suggest that there are around a million in total in France. “That's already considerable,” says Christophe Everaere. “In certain very intense industries, such as marketing or tourism, it's disguised working. For example, the person on workplace experience is recruited by their predecessors.”

In fact, extended periods of workplace experience, prolonged temporary work and repeated short-term contracts have all automatically postponed the prospect of permanent work for many people. Today young people spend on average between four and eight years finding their way in the workplace before getting full-time permanent jobs. Back in the 1960s it just took a month. For the least-qualified, and those who have the misfortune to have the wrong kind of name – showing their immigrant origins - or come from the wrong part of town, permanent employment can be little more than a mirage. Getting a succession of little jobs does not boost one's chances of getting full-time employment: according to the body that monitors temporary work and recruitment, the Observatoire de l’Intérim et du Recrutement, only 8% of people in temporary jobs in March 2015 had found a permanent contract a year later.

“Short-term contracts and temporary work are [acting] less and less as stepping stones towards employment,” confirms INSEE's Claude Picart. “They did, and still do sometimes, but less and less. The end of a career is also more difficult than before. An increasingly significant proportion of older people lose their jobs a few years before retirement.”

Is job insecurity in France simply a myth?

What should one make of what one might call 'happy' insecurity, the delight of not being chained to the same boss all the time? It does exist but is mainly reserved for a particular subsection of workers. “One must be clear: people willingly accept atypical work when they have more personal qualities and a better qualification. It's a real dividing line,” says Christophe Everaere.

It is the same with part-time work, which has quadrupled over the last 40 years; in 1974 just 5% of the workforce worked part-time, today it is 19%. One reason perhaps for this large increase is a broader desire to balance our personal and professional lives, but that is not the only reason. Noted for its great flexibility, part-time work mostly involves women. One should also note that inequality of pay between men and women is also likely to be a factor here. “When you earn less than your husband, even if you genuinely want Wednesdays off [editor's note, the day when young schoolchildren are off school or have a half-day], it's the woman who tends to choose part-time work,” says Dominique Glaymann.

It is a similarly misleading picture when it comes to female unemployment, which is currently below that for men. During recessions men are the first to be hit because the male-dominated industrial sectors are very quickly affected by a fall in exports. “But you have to look beyond that: the crisis spreads afterwards to services, where women are more numerous. In particular the politics of austerity carried out from before the crisis have hit the public sector where women are over-represented, notably through the non-replacement of civil servants. That de facto reduces employment opportunities for young women,” says Anne Eydoux, specialist in employment policies and a researcher at the higher education institution the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers (CNAM). “As for [economic] revival plans, they are focussed on the male-dominated industrial sectors. In short, for women the delayed effects of the recession have combined with those of the politics of austerity: the cuts in public spending and the chronic lack of childcare facilities affect them more.”

When one examines the ins and outs of underemployment, two contrasting figures stand out. First of all, we know that in 2016 some 86% of people in work are on indefinite contracts (which on average last ten years). This tends to undermine the notion that France is a land of job insecurity. Yet at the same time we know that the great majority of new hiring is done on short-term contracts. The turnover of such contracts has massively accelerated too, making insecurity worse for those who are affected. “There's not been an explosion in the number of distinctive forms of employment in recent years in the overall jobs total, but there has been an explosion in the way these distinctive forms of employment and unemployment now reoccur,” Sabina Issehnane, an economics lecturer at Rennes II university in western France.

So whereas in the past one might have worked on one or two short-term contracts, now one might work on four or five, with some of them being very short in length. However, there is great uncertainty as to how many French workers are affected by this phenomenon. Do a relatively small number of French workers get through a large number of very short fixed-term contracts, or is there an ever-growing number of workers who are sometimes having to put up with fixed-term contracts? No one is really able to say yet the distinction matters, because the government employment agency Pôle Emploi cannot handle these two different cases in the same way. “That's why people remain signed on,” says one expert. “They alternate between unemployment and employment. Career patterns seem to be permanently affected by this phenomenon.”

In the same way sociologist Dominique Glaymann prefers to speak of employment as a more fragmented world, consisting of concentric circles, rather than there being a stark demarcation between people on 'secure' indefinite work contracts and those on 'insecure' fixed-term agreements. In rough terms there is a hard core of people on indefinite contracts or in the public sector who are in qualified, full-time, well-paid positions, surrounded by a circle of people on part-time indefinite contracts, at the start or end of their careers or who are in sectors in crisis, giving them a strong sense of insecurity and social demotion. Then there is a third circle made up of people on fixed-term contracts, on state-aided contracts and those in temporary work, with these workers rubbing shoulders with the unemployed. “For those in the two final circles unemployment hangs over them like the Sword of Damocles,” says Glaymann. “The further you are from the centre, the more the fear grows.” This approach shows that the line between the “unemployed” and “workers” is more blurred than many suppose.

Just as with unemployment, job insecurity is greatest for the least qualified. “For example the food industry is going to hire truckloads of workers for eight months, but for difficult and low-paid work,” says Sabina Issehnane. “As a result social difficulties, workplace injuries, health problems, divorce and [the issues of] access to higher education for children and to credit all pile up and are intensified by [job] insecurity.” In 2015 more than 600,000 French households were classified as being in poverty, an increase of 2% in a year. Many of them, of course, are unemployed, but a significant number of them are workers in insecure jobs.

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  • The French version of this article can be found here.

English version by Michael Streeter

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