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A 35-hour workweek all over France? Not quite

It's just a bar above which overtime or leave can be claimed
Monday, May 26, 2014 - 06:00

[SINGAPORE] A Citadines serviced apartment housekeeper in France at The Ascott Ltd, the largest Singapore employer there, takes home about 20,000 euros (S$34,127) a year.

But after tagging on social security dues like on healthcare, family benefits, as well as unemployment insurance and pension contributions, Ascott pays about 30,000 euros a year, said Lee Sym Keun, Ascott's senior vice-president of asset management and business development in Europe.

Still, he does not begrudge the French government the money. Having matters like healthcare taken care of ultimately helps the employee, and a satisfied employee will stay for longer, he said.

"All in, the take-home income might seem low, overall costs might seem high. But somebody has to finance this benefit," he said.

"When you invest in one country, I don't believe we should look at one specific factor. In Germany, the cost of labour is as high as France. Belgium is higher, Denmark is much higher, the United Kingdom is lower.

"But again, through all these benefits, you get an employee who is benefiting from the health coverage. When he says he's sick, you don't need to worry too much.

"I prefer to have employees who can benefit from free medical coverage than worry whether we, as an employer of choice, need to do something."

To outsiders as well as those living in the country, France's labour costs are a subject of discussion and sometimes ridicule.

Anecdotally, there are stories about the arguably infamous, legally-passed 35-hour workweek, as well as the acquis, a French word describing acquired benefits and the spirit of entitlement surrounding them.

"It is difficult to hire French people. They want a lot of money and don't want to do a lot of work," complained an Italian restaurant owner, who has spent 30 years in France, to BT.

Charlotte, a dentistry student who is working part time as a tour guide driving a "cyclopolitain" rickshaw- like vehicle in Lyon, said younger dentists want to work a few days a week, and take the rest of the time off - possibly because they could earn enough to get by.

People have also been affected by the eurozone economic crisis, she said. "Even if you work a lot, you won't earn much."

When told of the Singaporean tendency to work 12 hours a day, she quipped: "If the French had to work 12 hours a day, there would be another revolution."

Of course, many French do not work just 35 hours a week.

According to Eurostat, managers in France worked an average of 44.6 hours a week in the fourth quarter of 2012, ahead of the UK (43.6) and Germany (43.1). The number for employees was 36.5.

The 35-hour limit is just a bar above which overtime can be claimed, or converted to leave.

At software company Esker, engineers work 60 hours a week but get seven weeks of vacation in return, said CEO Jean-Michel Berard.

The system can be taken advantage of. A fund manager claimed that a friend, working in financial services, was put on a French contract with 40 days of holiday a year. He accrued an extra 20 days of holiday by working extra hours, sold the leave back to the company, and used the money to pay for his 40-day vacation.

"The whole thing cost him nothing. He said it was ridiculous."

Still, there are advantages to recruiting in France, particularly in the field of engineering and programming.

The grass is not greener on the other side of the pond, pointed out Mr Berard of Esker, a small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) which employs 300 people.

"If you want to find good skilled people, France is a good place," he said.

Esker once set up a small office in California, and "it was tough to recruit even technical support" given the competition for talent against far larger companies like Oracle, Google or SAP.

But in Lyon, France's second-largest city, Esker could find master's degree holders, he said.

"The cost of living is still reasonable particularly in a city like Lyon, and we're in the centre of a huge European market."

The French government is looking at cutting corporate taxes and labour costs in its recent announcements.

Constant tax and labour law changes confuse, and are a hassle for business, he admitted.

To him, the system of social entitlements means a lower take-home pay for his staff.

"We have consultants doing software implementation everywhere in the world. Surprisingly, if you take the salary of a Singaporean, German, UK and French consultant, the total cost for the company is the same, plus or minus 5 per cent, for people of the same profile," he said.

"But the social charges are so high that the French people receive a lower salary. So it doesn't harm the business, it harms the employee - though in exchange they have strong social security and other benefits."

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