On the day after Halloween, the city of Paris buzzed with the air of school holidays and a national holiday (All Saints’ Day) for workers. There’s a clear divide between North American countries and European countries like France in terms of the emphasis they place on leisure, and their investment in social well-being. This apparent divide left me thinking, what’s the societal impact of having a minimum of five weeks of paid vacation time at the start of employment? And what impact does this vacation time have on the economy?
What is the societal impact of having a minimum of five weeks of paid vacation time at the start of employment? And what impact does this vacation time have on the economy?
I recently reconnected with a family friend who is a small business owner in Paris. As someone who is trying to grow his business, he argues that his employees receive too much vacation time. At the start of their employment his employees, who are working in a customer service profession, receive five weeks of vacation time. France leads other OECD nations in its provision of paid vacation and holidays, offering workers 30 days annually. Canada, conversely, is much less generous than other OECD countries, only requiring a grant of ten days of paid annual leave for full-time employees (dictated at the provincial level).
A recent contentious French labour reform bill led to massive public debate and protests throughout the summer months of 2016. The key issues of this labour reform bill are as follows:
- The 35-hour work week remains in place as an average, where firms can negotiate with unions on more or fewer hours from week to week, with a maximum of 46 hours of work
- Firms have more freedom to reduce pay
- Conditions to lay off workers are eased (with the intention to take on more employees if jobs can be shed if there is an economic downturn)
- Employers have more leeway to negotiate holidays and special leave for marriage ceremonies or maternity leave
The protesting and violence that accompanied this anti-government demonstration resulted in approximately 2,000 arrests and many injured. Despite this public dissent, the reform was passed in July 2016.
France has strong labour unions, and the existing laws have substantial protections for their workers. The CGT union led the past protest, supported by six other large unions including Unef and Force Ouvriere. The statutory powers that French unions hold through joint managers, business representatives, and employee representatives in the workplace, are the real source of their strength. Under French law, elected union delegates represent all employees in firms with over 50 staff, whether they are union members or not. Despite the reforms, these laws are, on the whole, still friendlier to workers than labour laws in other EU countries and Canada.
Enhanced productivity during working hours comes from proper breaks, with countries like France understanding the argument that more hours of work does not necessarily mean increased output.
French labour laws that provide employees with ample vacation time and protect workers’ rights have not, however, protected society from high unemployment rates, which have been as high as 10.5% as of May 2016. Workers’ unions have continued to argue that France’s productivity is amongst the highest in Europe, but unemployment is still rising. These realities made me wonder, does Canada have something to learn from France?
Canada does have something important to learn about the benefits of vacation hours from France, but should also be aware of the pressure that such policies have on employers. Enhanced productivity during working hours comes from proper breaks, with countries like France understanding the argument that more hours of work does not necessarily mean increased output.
The protests show how highly the people of France value their labour laws, and how a change to these laws is regarded as impacting their overall well-being. Why aren’t Canadians outraged by the lack of vacation time that is mandated for them, especially as job security and unionized positions are decreasing? Maybe we should be a little more outraged.
Canadian ambivalence towards limited vacation time may be due to the fact that hard work is ingrained in our culture. This lack of outrage may also result from a fear of falling behind on the part of Canadian professionals. Further, this may be a North American problem; the United States is even worse than Canada at mandating vacation time for employees.
Increasing vacation time seems like a win-win. Research shows that paid time off work increases productivity, helping to improve the economy, when employees are on the job. At the same time, the increased provision of leisure time will provide the average Canadian with the opportunity to boost social and familial well-being. Unfortunately, this is not the present reality. With a changing workforce and a growth of precarious work, Canada’s policy landscape leaves little room for an increase in vacation time. Small business owners like my friend in Paris may resist generous vacation policies for employees because of the staffing challenges it presents. Yet when I advised my friend of how little time off we have in Canada, he was concerned about the impact this would have on employees. Although it is unrealistic to see a jump as large as 30 paid vacation days a year, the need for more than 10 days is clear. Canada still has a few things to learn from its French counterparts.
Shannon Brooks is a second year Master of Public Policy student at the University of Toronto. She is spending her fall semester abroad in Paris at the Sciences Po School of International Affairs. Her policy interests include social policy, municipal policy, immigration, and international affairs. Shannon recently worked as a co-op analyst with the Regional Municipality of York, where she was able to learn more about internal Human Resources policy and municipal finance policy. She is looking forward to hitting up as many European beaches that she possibly can.
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