Earlier this month, employees of the French fragrance store Sephora assembled outside a courtroom in Paris waiting for judges to hand down a ruling on night working hours. The employees, however, were not fighting for shorter working days, but the right to work more.
In a country more known for the 35-hour work-week and one of the lowest retirement ages in Europe, the latest crusade of French workers may surprise many. Employees want to work more hours, but the unions warn “it’s bad for their health.”
Sephora employees have since lost their right to work late. The chain’s flagship store on the Champs-Elysée, a historic Parisian shopping thoroughfare, must now shut it’s doors at 9 p.m. instead of midnight. Other stores have also recently seen themselves obliged to cut short hours, including the Parisian grocery chain Monoprix and the Apple Store.
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Also under attack is the right to open on Sunday. The French hardware store chains Leroy Merlin and Castorama recently were forced by courts to remain closed on Sundays earlier this month.
It’s not the French authorities, however, that are behind these forced closings, but the country’s unions. An inter-syndical committee bringing together some of the country’s biggest unions, called Clic-P, is the main driving force. Theoretically, unions are supposed to fight for the rights of their members, but recent events in France have the unions pitted directly against the employees they are supposed to represent.
A union representative speaking to the French newspaper Le Monde said that Clic-P was defending the interests of employees, adding that night hours and Sundays have been "spreading like wildfire." Before the 1970s in France, rarely were stores open on Sundays or later than early evening. The French labor law that is supposed to regulate working hours, union officials say, leaves many loopholes for businesses to obtain derogations to stay open late or on Sundays.
On the other hand, many employees are outraged that the unions are waging an old ideological battle that is costing their families money every month. According to the French Ministry of Labor, almost a third of the French have worked Sundays at some point in their life and, according to recent polling, a majority of citizens say they’d be happy to work Sundays as long as they are compensated accordingly.
Employees that voluntarily work nights or weekends say that they want to put in the extra hours to feed their families and put money aside for the future. In France, no one can be forced to work Sundays and employers are obliged to pay employees as much as two times more to work weekends or late hours. Furthermore, French law accords early retirement to many careers that involve extensive night work. Métro conductors even get early retirement for being underground all day.
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One woman interviewed by the French television program Capital said that she happily worked weekends, saying that she, "receives almost 50% more per hour on weekends and saves hundreds a month in child care costs by taking days off during the week." At her store, she said, "the management had to institute a system of rotating weekends to allow everyone to take turns working." Unions have responded by saying that employees may say they volunteer for these shifts, but, in reality, are forced to do so because they are underpaid to begin with.
Business owners say they are losing out on a lot of potential sales in a tough economic environment. A manager at Sephora said the company’s store on the Champs-Elysée stands to lose 20% of its turnover. Small business owners in particular feel they are losing out. Labor law allows local authorities to map out special "tourism zones" inside of which stores are exempt from onerous regulations. In reality, however, small business owners say that its only the huge chains that benefit. They are the only ones with the money to prime real estate in tourism zones and can put considerable pressure on local authorities.
With upcoming municipal elections in Paris, the issue has taken center stage. The country’s conservative UMP party hopes to oust the Socialist mayor that has been in power for the past decade. The UMP candidate for mayor, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, says that deregulating opening hours could create as much as 10,000 jobs in Paris alone. Her opponent, the Socialist candidate Anne Hidalgo, says she doesn’t want the city to turn into a shopping mall.
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