TCS Daily

Work Week Tyranny

By Shawn Macomber - February 4, 2005 12:00 AM

Socialist and communist lawmakers in France are introducing close to 130 amendments to block or water down reforms to the country's draconian labor laws, which currently make it a crime (with some prohibitively expensive exceptions) to work more than 35 hours a week.

Aside from the very clear economic reasons for repealing the law -- France's unemployment rate has remained in the vicinity of 10 percent despite Socialist promises that the reduction in hours would somehow create more jobs through a sort of "work-share" -- there is a more basic reason rarely discussed: The idea of forcibly limiting individuals from doing whatever they choose with their lives, including their working hours, smacks of authoritarianism.

As Former French Industry Minister Alain Madelin has pointed out, the law "is an attack on the freedom to work."

"What right does the state have to prevent someone who wants to work more and earn more from doing just that?" Madelin asked recently in a Mises Institute article.

After all, if socialists want to live out some utopian fantasy, why not let them find their own 35-hour-a-week jobs instead of imposing them on everyone else. Not everyone wants to live in the collective or by the rules of a minority party that seeks dominion over the rules of an entire society.

The moral indefensibility of the law can be seen in the frantically nonsensical protests against the repeal by four of the five major French unions. Massive demonstrations are planned this weekend in the streets of Paris, and apocalyptic rhetoric is the order of the day. "To make us believe that workers will be able to work more to earn more is a lie," a spokesman for the CFDT trade union, François Chereque, told BFM radio, while former French Socialist labor minister Martine Aubry, the architect of the 35-hour law enacted in 1998, has been braying publicly that its repeal would eliminate 50 years' worth of social progress.

Although it is hard to explain away any plan to impose controls on people "for their own good," these are still oddly desperate arguments in favor of a law most French newspapers are trumpeting has 77 percent approval. (A lesser publicized survey found 55 percent of white-collar workers and more than 30 percent of blue-collar workers wanted the option to work more hours.) First of all, it is painfully obvious people will earn more if they are allowed to work more. Simple arithmetic tells us that. This amount increases considerably when one takes into account that anything above 35 hours will require overtime pay.

As to Aubry's claim, she has not bothered to explain how removing a six-year-old law can accomplish the feat of turning the clock back 50 years. At most wouldn't it go back six years? And what if it were 90 percent opposed? In a democracy, do those ten percent not have the right to live their lives as they see fit?

By all accounts, this law is a failure politicians of all stripes should be running from in France. As pointed out above, the law did not force companies to hire more employees and so, therefore, has not ameliorated France's cripplingly steady unemployment rate. It has created manpower shortages in sensitive industries such as hospitals, where waiting lists-already long under a socialized healthcare system-have gotten even longer. French (and European) industries have begun moving more jobs to wage-friendly Eastern European locales. Even the socialists currently fighting to keep their crowning achievement intact cede the fact that working-class families fled the party in 2002 over the loss of income accrued due to the law.

An aging population expecting the typical extravagant handouts and low rates of economic growth (less than 2 percent on average for more than a decade) also does not bode well for the status quo.

"French are working less than others, 1,561 hours a year, or 20 percent less than Americans," Sylvain Charat, director of Policy Studies for the French think tank Eurolibnetwork pointed out in a Tech Central Station article last September. "Furthermore not enough French are at work: 61 percent compared to 72 percent in the United States. And finally French work costs are 20 percent higher than the European Union average before enlargement, and 40 percent higher than the United States."

Other nations are facing up to unpopular reality as well. German leader Gerhard Schröder's official blueprint for rising from the country's economic doldrums, Agenda 2010, likewise proposes an end to the 35-hour work week straight-jacket.

The baseline point here is that no one in France will be headed off to put in 20 hour days at the salt mines if the law is repealed. The country is still a signatory to the European Union's Working Time Directive entitling workers to a work-week ceiling of 48 hours, a minimum of one day off per week, and an annual paid holiday of four weeks.

But even these EU restrictions (which, it should be noted, are no more morally sound than French restrictions) may prove to be too much as well. France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Ireland are all seeking "opt outs" for health care workers, while Luxembourg wants one for hotel workers.

Per usual, forced equality is a farce and subject to the whims of the needs of the state, not the needs of the people. Workers' rights should include the right to work.

The author is a Staff Writer at The American Spectator and runs the website



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