For millions of people today across the West the notion of working nine to five for the same employer year in, year out seems almost quaint. Indeed, it is without question the workplace has undergone profound changes over the past few decades.
While the rise of digital platforms has tended to grab the media’s and public’s attention when it comes to the new ways people work, it is clear these changes predate the spread of the Internet; they point to a broader and deeper shift in the relationship between labour and capital.
Workers in France typically enjoy more labour protection and perks than in many other advanced economies, but the French workplace is in no way immune to the erosion of the post-war labour model that provided salaried workers with a certain degree of social protection for decades.
France Stratégie has recently explored these developments in a study that takes an in-depth look at how French job professions and their respective employment statuses have evolved since the mid-1980s.
Two trends stand out. One, there has been a significant rise in the number of temporary contracts over this period. And two, there has been a recent increase in the number of independent workers and a concomitant change in their composition.
The number of temporary contracts, which include fixed-term (contrats à durée déterminée, CDD) and interim contracts, shot up from 5% of total jobs in 1984 to 13% in 2016. What’s more, they have become prevalent across more sectors. The authors, analysts Cécile Jolly and Jean Flamand, point out that not only have these contracts been getting shorter, but they have become a means for companies to hire or even rehire workers.
Today, professions that mostly enjoyed permanent contracts thirty years ago (e.g. administrative HR jobs, corporate receptionists and computer installers) have rates of short-term contracts that are much higher than the average in the job market overall.
Not surprisingly, this correlates to socioeconomic status: those working blue collar jobs are more prone to having temporary contracts than white-collar workers, who are much more likely to have permanent contracts (contrats à durée indeterminée, or CDI).
At the same time temporary contracts have gone up for certain jobs, professions where more than 20% of jobs were non-salaried in 1984 have seen an increase in the number of permanent contracts. However, the study demonstrates both trends stem from the same phenomenon of large companies cutting back on payroll. In particular, companies have been outsourcing legal and financial jobs, while firms providing these services have grown substantially.
There has also been an increase in permanent contracts for jobs formerly held by shopkeepers and independent tradesmen. This is a direct result of the spread of large retail stores in the form of malls, strip malls, supermarkets, hypermarkets, megastores and the like, which has led to a decline in mom-and-pop businesses across France.
The growth of agro-industry has also played its part: the study cites government statistics detailing the sector now employs three-fifths of the country’s butchers and bakers. Woodworkers, furniture workers and executives and workers in construction also more commonly have permanent contracts as industrial-scale manufacturing and large construction companies have replaced many craftspeople (petits artisans).
The second other major trend is an increase in the number of independent workers and a change in their composition. Over the past decade there has been a notable increase in the number of non-salaried workers in the service sector. Whereas thirty years ago self-employed farmers made up one-third of the independent workforce, today they only account for one-eighth. Jobs such as graphic designer, journalist, instructor, physiotherapist or electrician are increasingly filled by independent workers.
As with the spike in temporary contracts for certain professions and permanent contracts for others, the increasing number of independent workers has provided companies with a considerable amount of labour flexibility, allowing them to outsource certain jobs. Moreover, it has been a corollary of the growth of services in the economy and has tended to be the case for jobs dealing with knowledge, paramedical professions and craftsmen working in construction.
Without the perks
Jolly and Flamand stress the overwhelming majority of freelances and tradespeople (néo-artisans) work alone, with no boss and no employees: a full 74% of independent French workers in these professions had no payroll in 2014. What’s more, it is not uncommon for them to work in near subordination, without the social protection salaried employees enjoy. In effect, some independent workers have one client and in certain cases are employees that have been persuaded to work for themselves in what amounts to phony subcontracting.
This phenomenon is not new, but it has increased in recent years since the French government introduced a new self-employed worker status in 2009 (autoentrepreneur) to encourage labour flexibility and foster employment. And the on-demand, or gig, economy has profited off of it, with digital platforms taking advantage of this more flexible workforce.
The study points out, however, that the growing number of independent workers concerns only certain job professions. Their numbers have increased substantially for plumbers, carpenters and electricians, for example, since the 2008-09 financial crisis. People working in research, journalists, translators and instructors are also more often than not self-employed, which, again, reflects the trend of companies outsourcing certain services.
The authors highlight the diversity of work conditions within employment statuses, arguing the traditional distinction between stable permanent contracts on the one hand and precarious temporary contracts on the other, for example, doesn’t necessarily hold in France’s job market today.
One thing is certain, whether it comes in the form of permanent and temporary contracts or self-employed workers, there is increasing job precarity in labour markets across the EU. The European Commission’s recently launched European Pillar of Social Rights, whose main aims include providing fair employment conditions and equal opportunities, and access to labour markets, attests to this predicament.
Could the rapidly expanding gig economy and the digital revolution be a bellwether of what’s in store for the labour market in France? Though they remain marginal, they could become major players in the future. And how will regulators react? Regardless, Jolly and Flamand contend the continued growth of online platforms could further boost the number of freelances and tradespeople, boding for rising employment instability and irregular income for many in the workplace.