For France's 3m 'precarious workers', retirement age row is a sideshow

Hundreds of thousands of workers are gearing up for another round of protests on Tuesday (7 March), hoping to bring “France to a standstill” in their continued resistance to the government’s proposed pension reform that would most notably raise the legal retirement age from 62 to 64.

But for the country’s over three million ‘precarious workers’ the retirement age has long been 67, if they ever do retire.

  • Abdel Benhamed: ‘if you work hard, at some point your body will give out’ (Photo: Sam Welch)

While precarious work has no universally-accepted definition in Europe, it generally refers to employment that is uncertain, insecure, low-paying and offers little social protection, if any. This can range from freelancers relying on various contracts and employees with short-term contracts, who are included in the pension system, to street vendors with no contracts, who are often excluded.

“The question of pensions does not concern these people, quite simply because, first of all, they are not included in spaces of conversation and dialogue,” said Alix Lafosse of Association Amelior, a Paris-based association that represents and defends the rights of street vendors in France.

The vendors constantly face police repression as their work of recycling and selling is not recognized as a legitimate job. Many of them do not know how to register as independent workers or do not want to, as they do not see any benefit in registering their very sporadic revenue.

Amelior helps street vendors in the Paris area organise a market every Wednesday morning in Montreuil, a northeast suburb of the French capital. Here, older French people and immigrants from countries like Romania or Tunisia sell second-hand wares to eke out a living.

According to them, these street vendors in France rarely have access to social protections like pensions.

For many, “the concept of retirement is crazy, they can’t imagine a system where they don’t have to work,” Julien Veron of Amelior said.

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In order to gain access to these privileges, Lafosse said, they need to first have their work be recognized as legitimate.

“Afterwards, we could talk about including these people in a more institutional system, where we would give these people more classical rights. But right now, they don’t have a place in the debate on pensions,” Lafosse said.

The work, even if unregulated, can be a “vector of inclusion” according to Lafosse. Some street vendors later become salaried employees with more “classic” contracts with organizations like Amelior.

Abdel Benhamed, a Tunisian immigrant, is one example. Benhamed has been a street vendor since he arrived in France over a decade ago. But it wasn’t until recently when he joined the association as a staff member that he was able to make pension contributions under the existing system.

“I’m 39 now, so my retirement is in 25 years. I’m not saying I don’t think about it because time flies, but at the same time I don’t think about it much. But still … if you work hard, at some point your body will give out,” Benhamed said.

Research continues to look at the health impacts of precarious employment, with some studies showing that precarious work leads to poor health outcomes.

Out of all independent workers in France, 33.2 percent live under the poverty line, after taxes, according to a 2022 report of the French National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies.

“It has a double punishment effect”

Many of those opposed to the government’s pension reform say that it will disproportionately impact precarious workers and force them to work longer. But according to a recent analysis by economist and statistician Patrick Aubert at the French Institute for Public Policy, this is already the case for precarious workers like freelancers and employees with short-term contracts under the current pension system.

That’s because the reform raises the minimum retirement age from 62 to 64, but doesn’t change the maximum age when all workers are entitled to a pension, 67. Many precarious workers aren’t able to retire until 67 as it is.

One factor that leads workers to retire later is not fulfilling the expected 43 years of contribution to the pension system. In France, a penalty is applied on the amount received for each missed quarter of contribution. Currently, a worker is guaranteed to receive their full retirement, with no penalties, at the age of 67.

“The reform itself does not affect them more. On the other hand, it doesn’t change anything about an inequality that already existed before, because it’s not necessarily logical that the most precarious people have to wait until age 67,” Aubert told Europe 1.

Vincent Touzé, an economist and specialist in retirement policies at the French Economic Observatory (OFCE), said “it has a double punishment effect. People with interrupted, inconsistent careers are obliged to retire at 67.”

An EU-wide struggle

The struggle for precarious workers to gain access to fair pensions is not specific to France. At the EU level, precarious work, by many of its definitions, has been on the rise since the 2008 financial crisis, challenging European models of social protection. Temporary jobs, for example, increased five percent between 2020 and 2021.

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The senior advisor of the European Trade Union Association, Ignacio Doreste, says that precarious work tends to receive less consideration in terms of definition by law and policy alike.

“A possible reason for this is that most systems have traditionally seen precarious forms of employment as a residual category: if somebody is engaged in paid work but does not fit the characteristics of an employee working under a contract of employment or employment relationship, then they will most likely be considered, a precarious worker,” Doreste said.

The European Parliament adopted a resolution in 2017 on working conditions and precarious employment. It defines precarious work as “employment which does not comply with EU, international and national standards and laws and/or does not provide sufficient resources for a decent life or adequate social protection”

Among other things, the resolution calls on the European Commission and member states to address precarious employment to ensure decent working conditions and social protections for workers as well as to ensure that social security systems accommodate new forms of employment. The resolution also emphasizes that precarious employment disproportionately impacts the most vulnerable workers, such as those already at risk of discrimination, poverty and exclusion.

Doreste believes that stronger unions are needed for the rights of precarious workers to be upheld. “To face the challenge of the precariousness of the world of work, and the absence, or the reduction, of social security, we need trade unions which reflect the composition of the workforce and which fully represent the needs of the people, in particular young people, women, migrants and people belonging to vulnerable groups.”


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