The study, published in the British Journal of Industrial Relations, also found that French manufacturers have been encouraged to look beyond the ‘cheap labour’ route and can depend up a range of alternative approaches whereas UK firms still rely heavily on a low wage, flexible and temporary workforce.
The aim of the research, said the authors, was to determine how the food processing industry is using numerical and functional labour flexibility in two contrasting economies, France and the UK, taking into account the fundamental differences in approaches to industrial relations, labour protection laws and the general regulatory environment in both countries.
The food processing industry, said the authors, has a number of characteristics that make it a particularly intriguing sector in which to examine these issues, said the authors. It is little researched, yet it is one of the biggest manufacturing industries in both the UK and France, they added.
“Many products are subject to seasonal variation while the increasingly dominant retail sectors are squeezing prices and making greater use of short-term demands for order changes from suppliers. These pressures are encouraging firms to seek ways in which to increase labour flexibility,” continued the authors.
They said that the UK firms “relied on numerical flexibility, both external and internal, while functional flexibility was very limited and, with one exception, was not something that management considered important to develop."
The authors also said that, in terms of functional flexibility, in contrast to the UK, a number of the French firms, particularly those with a high degree of automation, had both introduced and experimented with a range of initiatives designed to move operatives across tasks and functions around the factory and to give them a wider range of skills.
Nevertheless, work intensity appeared to be greater in France than in the UK and monthly wages could be lower because of short ‘normal’ hours and because of the lack of opportunity to work overtime, said the researchers.
But UK workers, they found, were more exposed to the erosion of company social benefits such as sick pay and pensions, worked far longer hours, and also faced uncertainty over the availability of overtime in comparison to their Gallic neighbours.
Agency workers, often of foreign origin, were used intensively in the UK food processing sector and, in the majority of cases, there was a reliance on high levels of paid overtime with few limitations on daily or weekly hours, reported the researchers.
However in France, they note, a number of companies had actually cut, to some extent, the number of temporary workers as they increased internal flexibility via annualization, automated the production process and developed more job function flexibility.
The researchers stressed that in France, labour flexibility was enhanced by the availability of regulatory resources for processing firms such as training provisions.
Source: British Journal of Industrial Relations
Published online ahead of print: doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8543.2010.00792.x
Delivering Flexibility: Contrasting Patterns in the French and the UK Food Processing Industrybjir_792 1
E. Caroli, J. Gautié, C. Lloyd, A. Lamanthe, S. James