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Call n° 11 – (Organising) The extension of working time

Coordination: Lionel Jacquot, Jean-Philippe Melchior, Simon Paye

The first issue of the Nouvelle Revue du Travail focused on changes in the temporality of work and how this affected work and workers while highlighting the fragmentation of time at work. Between France’s January 17th 2003 Fillon law and August 6th 2015 Macron “Economic growth, activity and equal opportunity” law, the incremental weakening of the country’s 35-hour workweek laws translated into longer working times, accompanied by a general policy of extending peoples’ working lives by requiring them to pay into their pension pots for a longer period of time. Hence the decision taken in this 11th research strand to focus on the extension in working time.

  • 1 See DARES summary written by Pak M., Zilberman S. with collaboration from Letroublon C., July 2013, (...)

It is clear that since 2003, there have been numerous measures in France extending the amount of time that people spend working. This includes increasing the annual envelope of maximum legal overtime, tax measures aimed at lowering the cost of overtime, incentives enabling employers to buy back workers’ holiday rights, etc. Over the past 15 years, there has been a marked rise in the amount of time that full-time employees spend at work in a year1. Over the same period, people also have started to spend more years of their lives working, at the same time as there has been a slight decline in holiday leave. In short, in France and other industrialised countries, the trend is towards people spending more of their lives at work.

  • 2 Devetter F-X., 2008, Travailler au-delà de 48 heures par semaine  (“Working more than 48 hours a we (...)

France’s El Khomri law is likely to further this trend by facilitating maximum daily or weekly working time agreements (including seasonal modulation variations) with these now being decided at the company-level instead of the branch level, as has been the case previously. All of these elements undermine current norms and feed into an ongoing drive aimed at increasing certain worker categories’ temporal availability to work. Nowadays, the average workweek in France is somewhat more than 39 hours, a number hiding the growing polarisation between workers available for extensive work and working time versus part-time and irregular workers. The present research strand will focus on the first category. Around one out of seven professionally active persons are saying nowadays that their weekly working time exceeds the legal limit of 48 hours, something defined since 1993 in an EU “working time” directive. It is worth noting that these forms of extensive temporal availability largely involve three groups “independent workers (farmers, traders, artisans) and business executives; managers experiencing longer workdays due to the annualised calculation of their total working hours (without any reference being made, for instance, to weekly maxima); and non-managerial employees regularly doing overtime, whether or not this is remunerated2.

The Nouvelle Revue du Travail’s corpus n° 11 will look at these long working times and the process by means of which people’s temporal availability for work is supposed to increase. This will be an opportunity for researchers to discuss the magnitude and scope of the phenomenon; the mechanisms underlying workers’ temporal mobilisation; and the effects of extensive working time. Contributions are expected to fit one of the three following threads.

1. The objectification (and expansion) of long working time

The objectification of the time spent working creates methodological and metrological problems that are widely understood and well-documented. A range of qualitative or quantitative observation strategies have been implemented to account for the main historical developments affecting the temporality of work. Having said that, the recent trend towards extended working time has received scant empirical analysis. Hence the urgency of diversifying investigations into this phenomenon and making a more systematic use of international comparisons, notably to see if the tendencies observed in France are also witnessed elsewhere. On top of this, there is also a need to develop knowledge relating both to the sectors involved and the sociodemographic profiles of the workers concerned.

Statistics remain a resource that has been insufficiently used in sociological and historical research into the temporality of work. Examples include the under-utilisation of activity calendars featured in annual social data surveys such as the French Déclarations Annuelles des Données Sociales “Working time and administration data” report, despite the fact that they would improve understanding of longer working hours and how they are located in the social space. To complement this, however, it is possible to use ethnographic field studies to overcome statistical categories’ traditional shortcomings (binary separation of working/not working) and reveal the role played by categories that are indigenous to the temporal organisation of productive activities, whether or not they had been institutionalised as representing “work” per se. This thread also calls for investigations of the way in which social sciences (particularly sociology) have treated the issue of working time.

2. Extending working time: construction, socialisation and resistance

Studies seeking to explain longer working time often invoke the construct of an “arbitrage” between free time and income, reproducing an economicist conceptualisation of time. Given the deficiencies of such explanations - based on the idea of the “opportunity cost” of unremunerated work - there is a need to return focus to a more global system encompassing all of the rewards and sanctions that orient, control, and discipline worker behaviour.

Analyses of the different types of temporal mobilisation logic affecting workers might wish to start with the management systems and public intervention instruments that can, on different scales, facilitate the extension of temporal availability. Examples include holiday savings accounts, overtime, incentives for employers to repurchase employee holidays, stagnating or declining hourly wages, etc. Questions might also be raised about the role that senior or mid-level managers play in extending working hours via company-level bargaining, the heteronomous determination of workloads or the intentional organisation of a structurally insufficient number of staff members. At this level, it is also worth studying the role played by subjective engagement in activities and/or in the meaning of professional “responsibility”, not to mention the use of digital tools that extend skilled workers’ temporal availability.

It remains that interactions between peers can (more insidiously) also engender de facto temporal norms as well as oneupmanship behaviour. For instance, in sectors like finance, the normalisation of long employee working hours means that conventional schedules are defined here as something extraordinary. Research into longer working time is therefore tantamount to analysing the socialisation thereof. Including individuals’ biographic trajectory in the equation should facilitate understanding of how a “working time career” is constructed out of the initial socialisation that people get in their family environment, followed by the educational systems in which they have participated and culminating in the lessons learnt from their professional trajectories.

The extension of professional time intimates certain domestic and family resources that should be analysed in terms of gendered social relationships. This is a reference to the partners/spouses of the workers being asked to increase their availability; whether lengthening men’s working hours requires women to do more work at home; the family (including childcare) models enabling extended working time; but conversely, under what conditions the family sphere might generate resistance to this phenomenon. After all, studying the extension of temporal availability involves more than looking at people’s willingness to work but also, and symmetrically, the basis for their individual and collective resistance practices; the arguments they use; and how and in what context a trade union presence may or may not be able to impeded the lengthening of working time.

In this way, it becomes clear how the real aim when analysing longer working time actually becomes to study - above and beyond individual “decisions” - all the different levels involved in the social regulation of work, including social and family life, organisational structures, professional relationships and public policy.

3. The meaning of “working more” or the social effects of extensive work

To understand what “working more” means, questions should be asked about the social effects of extensive work. The rise of company-level regulations (to the detriment of the transversal rules that had helped to homogenise work) has already led to a proliferation of atypical schedules that undermine the idea of collectively agreed working time. This eroding of the collective rules used to manage working time has reinforced certain dynamics already found in the individualisation of work and division of wage-earners. Analysis needs to be done on the impacts on work collectives and how they might structure themselves in the absence of shared time frameworks (i.e., whether they are in a position to react collectively to the imperative that people “work more”)

The weakening of collective social protection also ostensibly strengthens the employability model by focusing all decisions this field on individuals’ ability to adapt their schedules to a company’s needs; to become available; and agree working time changes. The ability to “work more” and ideas like learning how to change, performance-based culture, the incorporation of an urgency logic - these may be nothing more than the temporal dimensions of the kind of employability that is expected in today’s workforce mobilisation regime. If so, this would raise questions as to the new regime’s effects on work and working conditions.

Longer working time also affect people’s health. There needs to be greater understanding of the health effects when this happens over the long run. Issues relevant to this discussion include quality of life and work-life balance. Different people will find it more or less difficult re-balance work against other activities they consider important, meaning they could have a stronger sense of lacking the time they need for their daily preoccupations. The same applies to the idea of “choosing one’s own schedule” and assumes the possibility for employees to autonomously determine how long their work lasts and how it is structured. The question here is whether long working time, which seems to be less and less a product of negotiation, fits in with the decades-old trend towards a less uniform definition of time such as it is being experienced at both the individual and collective level.

Submission rules:

Articles may have a maximum of 45,000 characters (including spaces and bibliography). They must be submitted before January 6th 2017 to nrtravail@gmail.com as per the modalities and presentation norms specified in the Soumission et évaluation section of the NRT website: nrt.revues.org

Notes

1 See DARES summary written by Pak M., Zilberman S. with collaboration from Letroublon C., July 2013, La durée du travail des salariés à temps complet  (“Working time for full-time employees”), DARES – Analyses, n° 047 (http://travail-emploi.gouv.fr/IMG/pdf/2013-047.pdf)

2 Devetter F-X., 2008, Travailler au-delà de 48 heures par semaine  (“Working more than 48 hours a week”), Travail et emploi, n° 114, April-June, p. 59-68.

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