Health

French health workers angry as reforms threaten famous 35-hour working week

Issued on: 29/05/2020 – 19:03Modified: 29/05/2020 – 19:05

As French health workers continue to demonstrate demanding better pay and conditions after gruelling work on the coronavirus frontline, the government has announced that significant healthcare reforms are on the way to tackle problems exposed by the crisis. But the prospect of employees having to work more than the mandated 35 hours is contentious.

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Clad in face masks and banging pots and pans, a group of French doctors and nurses formed the latest protest by health workers on Thursday, as they massed in front of a hospital to the north of Paris, with banners stating their demands: “No medals, no tear gas, but beds and money!”

Despite being one of the richest countries in the world, Frances health service lacked staff, masks and ventilators at the start of the coronavirus crisis.

In light of workers anger over what they see as an insufficiently funded health service – not to mention the publics admiration of their valiant response to the Covid-19 epidemic – the French government is treading carefully. On Monday French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe announced a “public consultation” on reforming the health service.

A straitjacket for hospitals

Philippe promised to invest “massively” in Frances hospitals – including helping those struggling with debt – while strengthening links between the countrys health and social care systems.

Currently, salaries for French nurses start around €1,500 per month — among the lowest in the OECD, putting France 28th out of 32 on this measure.

Even before the Covid-19 crisis, many argued that funding for Frances cherished state health service had not risen enough to deal with an ageing population and increasingly expensive treatments. As President Emmanuel Macrons re-election battle looms in 2022, it seems his government wants to do what Boris Johnsons Conservatives did ahead of the UKs 2019 general elections – when they deployed vast new spending plans to neutralise public concern that National Health Service spending had not increased enough for years.

All the signs suggest that pay increases for doctors and nurses will be part of Philippes package. However, one line in the prime ministers address provoked an explosion of chagrin among many health workers, when he said that “working hours” are “not a taboo” and must be re-examined to boost the systems “agility”. One organisation representing operating theatre staff immediately responded: “Work more to earn more?” – a slogan used by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, admired by many on the French right but a bête noir of the left – “Out of the question”.

A few hours before Philippes speech, François Hollande fired a pre-emptive shot across the bow. “You cant say to staff who have worked without even counting their hours, and who sometimes worked overtime without extra pay, that weve now got to get rid of the 35-hour working week,” said Macrons Socialist predecessor. “Please dont get rid of what many of us see as a social asset.”

Since its introduction in 2000, Frances 35-hour working week has prompted both envy and French-bashing abroad. It is also controversial at home. Admirers say that it enhances quality of life by ensuring that work is not the be-all and end-all of ones daily existence, while forming part of a distinctive French social model that resists the homogenising effects of globalisation. Critics say that it is part of an economic system that stifles dynamism and innovation – often pointing to the fact that Frances GDP growth has frequently lagged behind that of its Anglo-Saxon competitors over recent decades.

The 35-hour week is “certainly a social achievement”, said the head of the French Hospital Federation Frédéric Valletoux, “but its been a straitjacket for hospitals, where youve got people doing different jobs at very different rhythms; weve tried to put everyone in the same box, and that caused major organisational problems”.

Dangerous staffing shortfalls

Many hospital staff work more than seven hours a day. Under the French system, this means they are supposed to get days off to compensate for going above and beyond the 35-hour threshold. Sometimes this system is tricky to manage, noted Éric, an operating theatre nurse in Brittany. While it works smoothly in his current job, in his previous post in the Paris region, “we ended up accumulating a lot of time off, and it was sometimes complicated to take it”.

According to Frances National Union of Nurses, the AP-HP hospital trust – a Paris-based network that forms Europes largest hospital group – owed its nurses 1.3 million days Read More – Source