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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Travail, famille  : difficile conciliation

by Anne Solaz

It’s Hard to Reconcile Work and Family Life

Translated Friday 8 January 2010, by Gene Zbikowski and reviewed by Henry Crapo

When you talk about companies strengthening families, what comes to mind is company nurseries, although there are still very few of them. The “Families and Employers” study has shown that only 2% of French companies employing 20 people or more have one.

by Anne Solaz, a researcher at the National Institute for Demographic Studies, and an economist and demographer (1)

Companies in France have participated for a very long time in making parenting easier, notably through the dues they pay to the family service of Social Security. Quite recently, companies have been encouraged to become more involved in measures to strengthen parenting, beyond compliance with the law. Thus it is that two measures have recently been adopted: pre-financed universal service employment checks (CESU) in 2006 (vouchers that are distributed to employees and which allow them to pay for a child-minder or a service provider), and the family tax credit in 2004. Companies which finance the establishment or running of nurseries, or which make financial payments to employees who are on paternity, maternity, or parental leave, or on leave to take care of a sick child, benefit from tax reductions. On the ground, this measure has above all proved to be a windfall for companies which have benefited from tax reductions for payments which most had already been making in any case.

Beyond complying with legal obligations and the recently-enacted measures, there are different ways in which companies can help their employees: flexible working schedules, services and aids in kind, and other financial aids. The study shows that they grant financial aids more often than services: 55% of the companies employing more than 20 people grant a bonus on the birth of a child and only 18% financial aid for child-minders. One-time benefits are also granted more frequently than benefits on a regular basis. For example, they are more likely to grant a flexible work schedule on the first day of school than on a daily basis to pick up children when they leave school.

Another finding is that the measures offered by employers are not always very well targeted. The main demand of working parents remains flexible work schedules, a flexibility that is rarely compatible with the organization of production or production targets. In 2004, only half of French workers worked standard hours, whereas a third of the workforce worked long or atypical schedules (more than 39 hours a week, or more than six days at a stretch, or evening, night or week-end work) and one employee in seven worked a variable or obligatory work schedule. And nowadays it is the atypical work schedules, which are particularly harmful to a balance between work and family life, which are becoming more common. Neither the economic crisis nor the generalization of working on Sunday is going to put the brakes on this tendency!

Finally, there are many differences among companies, depending on their legal status, their sector of activity, and their size, and this inevitably leads to inequalities among employees. These inequalities are also to be found within a single company. When both do the same kind of work, absences for family reasons are more easily accepted for mothers than for fathers. Men fear disapproval from their hierarchical superiors or their peers when they openly meet their family responsibilities by leaving work early or by staying at home with a sick child. Thus, social norms concerning the division of labor between the sexes, which are transmitted by the family, are also communicated and reinforced by the world of work.

Aid to families on the part of companies remains a welcome “little perk” for employees who can benefit from it. But this form of assistance, which is not distributed equally, is relatively weak in comparison to other European countries. In France, helping the family is mainly considered to be the role of government, which indeed performs this role. Government aid to families amounts to 3.7% of gross domestic product according to the OECD, and this is one of the highest levels in Europe, although some of this assistance takes the form of tax cuts, which benefit the wealthy.

(1) Anne Solaz and Ariane Pailhé edited the book Entre famille et travail  : des arrangements de couples aux pratiques des employeurs (Between Family and Work: from arrangements between partners to the practices of employers), published by Éditions La Découverte-Ined, 2009

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