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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    “Bonjour protests, au revoir employment”

    Jon Richescolumnist
    Jon Riches
    columnist

    “”Iz Im-paw-zee-bull!”” he spat in a heavy French accent. “”Pardon me?”” I replied in my best American one. “”Iz im-paw-see-bull. Too biz-ee.””

    While I suspected that it was actually not “”impossible”” to get some ice for my disgusting room-temperature Coke, I did not press the matter with my rude French waiter. Instead, my thoughts turned, strangely enough, to economics. How is it that this guy actually makes a living for himself? How does this French cafǸ survive with such abominable customer service?

    At the time, I did not know, nor care much about, French and American labor laws. But, considering a new labor law has caused some of the largest French protests in over a decade, it might be worthwhile to understand something about French employment regulations and how they differ from those in the U.S.

    Labor law in the U.S. is largely based on a system of at-will employment. This means an employer or an employee may terminate an employment relationship for any reason at all, except for some statutory and constitutional exceptions such as race, gender, age or religion. This system allows employees to leave jobs they are not happy with and permits employers to fire workers they find unsuitable.

    In France, and most other continental

    What these protestors do not understand … is that creating the expectation of permanent employment for any worker is a fundamentally bad idea.

    European countries, different types of statutory employment contracts characterize their labor systems. Many French employees, for instance, have indefinite contracts, which do not necessarily guarantee a job for life but make it very difficult for French employees to get fired. These contracts can be thought of as the equivalent of legally binding tenure for professors in U.S. universities, except they apply to a great number of workers in all areas of employment.

    At first blush, such stringent labor laws might seem like a pretty nice deal. Once an individual secures an indefinite contract, he effectively may enjoy permanent job security (along with a 35-hour work week) for the rest of his life. No doubt, there are some graduating seniors who might feel a little jealous of this scheme, but hold your envy; you have it better than your French counterparts.

    The problem with these permanent lifetime jobs is that they are so protected, so difficult to get rid of, that French employers have stopped creating them. This is part of the reason why France’s unemployment stands at an intractable 10 percent, more than twice that of the United States. Because new jobs are not being created, France’s system most severely affects recent graduates and young workers: France’s youth unemployment is a staggering 23 percent.

    These unemployment figures led French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin to devise the First Job Contract, or CPE. The idea behind that measure was to encourage employers to create jobs for workers less than 26 years old by giving them a two-year trial contract during which they could be fired more easily before permanent employment kicked in.

    French students and unions, however, did not view the CPE as a potential tradeoff between more jobs but less security (which it is). Instead, they deemed the measure “”exploitative,”” and violent protests ensued throughout France.

    What these protestors do not understand, and what countries with less restrictive labor laws do, is that creating the expectation of permanent employment for any worker is a fundamentally bad idea. An employment relationship should only last as long as it benefits both parties. That’s called a free market. How hard would you work, for instance, if you knew you could never get fired? Indeed, as a corollary, what would happen to your study habits if you were guaranteed “”A’s,”” regardless of time spent at the library? Well, that is precisely what the French government is telling employers about their employees. And that is precisely why employers in France have stopped offering permanent employment contracts.

    Of course there are other factors besides flexible labor laws that determine a country’s unemployment rate. But there is also a direct correlation between restrictive labor laws and unemployment: European countries with restrictive temporary-employment laws (France, Spain, Germany and Greece) experience more than twice the rates of unemployment as countries with less restrictive employment laws (Netherlands, Austria, Ireland, the U.K.).

    The French protestors claim their government’s attempt to (at least partly) address unemployment will lead to exploitation. Certainly, if they would like to see real exploitation, they need only look around at the millions of their colleagues who are unemployed because of their country’s failed labor laws.


    Jon Riches is a second-year law student. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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