ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: "S’attaquer au conflit sur la qualité du travail"
by Anna Musso
Translated Thursday 18 November 2010, by Henry Crapoand reviewed by
To Labour Psychologist Yves Clot, the question of the quality of work is at the heart of the crisis sparked by the pensions reform law. Last Monday he gave a conference entitled “Work and the capacity to act”, one of the Monday conferences of the Collège de France  at the Théâtre de la Commune, in Aubervilliers. He is here interviewed by Anna Musso.
HUMA: Doesn’t the large protest movement against the pensions reform bill place the question of work in the foreground?
YVES CLOT: Basically I think that’s true. But, unfortunately, the conflict over pensions once more showed how the question of work, which is never seriously taken up, poisons social and political life. That is why I felt emboldened to say that work is the “repressed” issue in French society. The new law can only aggravate the difficulty. At present 4 to 5% of the GDP is wasted on the costs of health problems due to working conditions, whether diseases or accidents. The supposed savings to be expected from the lengthening of careers are fictitious, because they lengthen the period of years at work without transforming working conditions. This will increase health bills.
HUMA: Where does the problem lie: in the frantic quest for profit, in management?
YVES CLOT: Less than one year ago, and for six months, all the media and all public officials reacted to the tragedies that occurred in France Telecom’s salaried ranks, by making much ado about the question of suffering at work. A busybody like Jean-François Copée convened an emergency committee at the National Assembly to tackle what he considered a “serious public health issue.” Parallel to those fine speeches, experts’ reports and hearings multiplied (as I know only too well). Suffering at work had become a must for politicians in all of their communications. But obviously political life has turned into the art of disconnecting problems from reality, of passing from one issue to the next and cutting off all the bridges to real life. In the course of this year, once the pensions bill had been put on the table, all of a sudden the difficulty of work, general though it may be in all professional branches, its physical or mental effects, all vanished from the “political and media spectrum”. Repression reappeared. Then the talk was all about figures, in one way or the other. Until last March the cry (even or foremost among UMP right-wing deputies) was that suffering at work, beyond the question of management and intensification, questioned the conception of the firm. And the debate on pensions opened onto proposals for “managing the difficulty of work” that leave one speechless.
HUMA: What is the government’s idea behind “managing” the difficulty of work?
YVES CLOT: The “difficulty of work” has been turned into a personal problem for any elderly worker, who will have to “prove”, before a committee (one more committee) that his or her physical condition has deteriorated so much that he or she deserves to leave earlier, at the age of sixty. This way, incidentally, illness has become a right of access to retirement. We may well have to pay very dearly (in all the meanings of the word) for this in the future; the fact that health may be turned into bargaining chips for retirement. Crocodile tears are shed over the rise in “sick leaves”. But what has just been legalized is the fact that illness, handicap or suffering may be the last recourse and way out of an exhausting, and supposedly un-improvable job. The burden of proof - that they are victims, that they have infirmities - will lie with candidates to retirement. Is that one’s notion of what a worker is? Where has the worker’s dignity and pride gone? The pride of which Sarkozy sang the praises in his presidential campaign as being one of our national values? The debate on the difficulty of work that has just taken place is a symptom of the ruin of our political life.
HUMA: Isn’t this one of the forms of the “French paradox” that you note between the fact that French people both set great store by work and at the same time wish to reduce its part in their lives?
YVES CLOT: The cohorts of demonstrators express that paradox; which is why millions of salaried workers take an active part in the protest movement. There is this French notion that work should be done properly; now that, today, has become really hard. A kind of professional dignity helps many people to remain standing. And yet, at the same time, the work they are obliged to do, which is never really “done” but only “half-done” or “ill-done” is no longer defensible in their own eyes. They no longer know themselves by their work. They are disoriented. And retirement can become a way out of this contradiction. It’s really very hard to put up with the deepening dilemma day after day, they say. So please do not oblige us to endure this longer than we’ve had to. Otherwise we’re “doubly punished”. That kind of work, which is spoilt, maimed, and incapacitating for too many people should not be imposed past the age of sixty! But it can’t go on like this even before that, the armies of marchers think! They are angry, but also tired of wasting so much energy working on despite all this, angry because the way work is organized tries their perseverance so much. Stress is nothing else than having to work in a way they disapprove of, and mulling over this poisons the time they spend at work and outside.
HUMA: Is there a way out?
YVES CLOT: Let’s take on the issue of the quality of work and fight over it: This can breathe new life into collective action, the capacity to act, and political invention. Beyond the speeches, the centre of gravity of the system of professional relations can be shifted to this issue, and lead to conflicts and negotiations. Obstacles will crop up along the way, of course, due to the petty financial tyrannies that are ready to sacrifice not only the quality of work but also the quality of nature and that of culture. But this conflict just cannot be avoided. Let’s investigate the case. Let’s not deceive ourselves: the Left itself is not proof against the belief that freedom starts when work ends. Retire and be free: no work! Is that what remains of the Left’s values? But if we don’t tackle the issue, we’ll soon have to fight for the right to retire at the age of forty! The conquest of free time begins at work, in the deliberate actions to change it, against and beyond its present conditions.
Yves Clot holds the chair of labour psychology at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers. His last book is le Travail à cœur. Pour en finir avec les risques psycho-sociaux, La Découverte, 2010 (Work taken to heart. Let’s have done with psycho-social risks)
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