Regulatory structures of flexible working time models in France and Germany

Using the example of working time accounts

Jens Thoemmes, CERTOP-CNRS Toulouse
Hartmut Seifert, formerly Institute of Economic and Social Research (WSI), Hans-Böckler-Foundation

The proposed contribution compares company agreements on working time accounts (WTA) in France and Germany. Empirical basis are about 600 agreements in both countries. In the foreground is the question to what extent the regulations provide clues for the time autonomy of the employees and what differences can be made between the two countries. The analyzes show that the promotion of time autonomy of employees plays a significant role in the company agreements for WTA. Time autonomy is necessarily understood only as a relative category because it is embedded in an operational environment characterized by social and economic constraints.

Relative autonomy of time is also mentioned, because the vast majority of regulations provide that WTA promote both time autonomy and meet market requirements and should take into account operational issues. In this respect, the agreements do not clearly favor certain objectives, but provide a relatively large scope for action, which must be completed according to the operational conditions.

Notwithstanding these general similarities, the French agreements differ from the German ones in central points. They offer very different scope for time autonomy in both countries. In Germany, the WTA are mostly short-term accounts, which as a rule apply automatically to all employees or defined groups of employees and do not have to be applied for individually. With time credits, debts and compensation periods, they contain temporal core elements that are usually precisely defined. WTA can be considered as regulated flexibility. On the one hand, they serve business flexibility interests by making it easier to adapt the workforce to a volatile workload with WTA. On the other hand, they are embedded in a well-defined rules system with the (collectively agreed) weekly working time as its non-flexible core, which ensures the functioning of WTA. In addition, they provide the employees with scope for a relatively autonomous and thus also based on their own interests variation of working hours.

In France, WTA are basically individual accounts that require the employees' consent (opening, closing, portability). Similarly, the "French WTA" are most likely to be associated with "German long-term accounts". WTA are also used explicitly in France to extend working hours. The conversion of time into money is also widespread, so that it can be asked whether time autonomy is subordinate to a desired or required increase in income or is even identical with it. Overall, the WTA in France is more of a medium and long-term savings contract, which does not allow any time debts.

In a second step we try to explain the differences in the regulatory structures of WTA found in the comparative document analysis. It can be shown that the differences have to do with the genesis of WTA and ist specific industrial relations.

With regard to France, WTA were created by a legislative initiative. In fact, the 1994 Law described the possibility for an employee to take at least six months leave after a period of saving working time. The aim of the law was to guarantee employees a long vacation, but to replace the same employee with an additional one. The objective of "employment through holidays" in the mid-1990s was part of a context in which the issue of employment was already a serious problem and the reduction of working time had disappeared from the agenda. Unlike France, the WTA was created in Germany in companies, including its formalization. Negotiations on the reduction of working hours in the metal industry in the mid-eighties had actually led to accounts, with the aim of coping with the time difference resulting from the reduction of working time. Combined with flextime, which became widespread in the 1970s, and also led to a calculation of the hours to be transferred to another period, the WTA became an instrument for controlling the individual variability of working time. The main objective was to consider the productive organization of the effects of reducing working time and shifting working time from one period to another.

In France, the legislator also plays a more active role in the negotiations on working time: he has created the WTA law, he has begun to shorten the working time to 35 hours. On the other hand, the legislative initiative for decades has been primarily concerned with promoting business negotiations. It is therefore not surprising that the legislature made the introduction of WTA in 1994 subject to the existence of a corresponding works agreement.

In Germany, works councils are conducting intensive negotiations on the introduc-tion of WTA on the basis of industry collective agreements. Industry-specific agree-ments limit compensation periods and volumes for WTA. However, these particular regulatory frameworks in both countries point to a social logic and generic contra-dictions that we can find in the quantitative analysis of our agreements: the contrast between law, collective agreement and BV, the contrast between long-term and short-term, the separation / unification of time and money, the representation of indi-vidual and collective interests, the question of debts and the limits of saving, the issue of unemployment and employment, the reduction and extension of working time. According to the provisions of the WTA, the structuring of companies and, sub-sequently, of companies is based on opposites that respond to different situations in the two countries. Collective action remains the driving force behind negotiations and agreements.