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France's Young Researchers Protest 'Precarious' Contracts

27 November 2012 5:48 pm
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Collective of Research Staff on Precarious Contracts

Precarious position. Young researchers protest in Paris against a new employment law that they say endangers publicly employed scientists working on "precarious," or short-term, contracts.

Early-career researchers across France staged protests yesterday against a new national employment law aimed at reducing the number of public employees working on short-term contracts. The researchers, who timed their demonstrations to coincide with a national consultative meeting on education and research policy being held in Paris, say the new law is emptying French labs of young workers and bringing promising research careers to a standstill.

The Law Sauvadet, which was passed in March under former President Nicolas Sarkozy, has been sending shockwaves through the French research system. It was designed to reduce job insecurity by stipulating that employees working on short-term contracts—known as contrats à durée déterminée (CDD)—must be offered a permanent position after 6 years. But the law, which was designed with the entire public sector in mind, doesn't apply well to the world of research.

In particular, the peculiarities of the French research system are prompting many research organizations to take some drastic preventive measures in case they are forced to apply the law on a large scale. At the heart of the problem is France's science funding system. Now, many research institutions fund CDD salaries through short-term grants won from external funding sources, such as the French National Research Agency (ANR). To offer all CDD employees a permanent contract, research institutions would need to expand pots of longer-term money that they receive from the government to pay for the salaries of their own in-house, permanent civil servant staff. The organizations, however, do not have sufficient funds to transfer their CDD employees into permanent jobs, says Joël Bockaert, a member of the French science academy who directs a biomedical research collaboration in Montpellier.

That potential financial strain, along with uncertainty over exactly how the government will implement the law, has led some research organizations—including CNRS, the French National Center for Scientific Research, France's biggest science player—to implement new policies making it more difficult for laboratories to extend CDDs for more than 3 years. "The research organizations rebelled a little," Bockaert says.

In practice, observers say, the result is that thousands of early-career researchers could lose their positions. "By blocking our careers, [employers] do not need to stabilize us" in permanent jobs, says a spokesperson for the Collective of Research Staff on Precarious Contracts of Montpellier, a local group protesting the new law. Already, Bockaert says, some young scientists are being asked to leave their positions even though they have secured 4 or 5 years of funding for themselves. "We have a contraction [of short-term employment] that is going to be dramatic," he adds.

The law is affecting researchers who are staying, too. The abrupt changes in employment conditions have brought "a very bad atmosphere in the laboratories," Bockaert says. Some labs are losing highly trained technicians and engineers. Training replacements will be time-consuming and difficult, especially if laboratories will be expected to do it every 3 years or so, Bockaert adds.

Critics say that the law also threatens to limit future hiring for civil service positions. That's because institutions are being placed in a position of having to choose between stabilizing their CDDs or employing new civil servants. Under certain conditions, the law also would give CDDs preferential access to permanent civil service positions, which could potentially further reduce the number of slots that would normally be available.

Yesterday's protest wasn't the first to challenge the new law. Since this past summer, young researchers across France have been posting open letters, writing petitions, and staging street protests with support from trade unions, which estimate there are some 50,000 CDD employees nationwide. Some protestors want the government to impose a 1-year moratorium on implementing the law to provide time to find long-term solutions. Most want the government to massively increase the number of available civil service positions so that CDD employees have a better chance to be absorbed into the system.

All it would take to open more civil service positions, the protestors argue, would be to allocate existing money differently. Grant money currently provided for CDD positions, for instance, could be redirected into creating more permanent jobs, says Patrick Monfort, a marine ecologist with CNRS in Montpellier and the general secretary of SNCS-FSU, the national trade union for scientific researchers. Nearly 80% of the €800 million that ANR awards for short-term research projects is used to cover CDD salaries, Monfort notes. "This is money that is already in the system."

Last week, France's Ministry for Higher Education and Research responded to the protests by announcing that it will give CDD employees preferred access to more than 2000 reserved civil servant positions a year over the next 4 years. But these positions are not newly created positions, Montfort notes. The ministry also estimated that there are 8400 eligible CDD employees at universities and 1400 in research organizations. Critics say those numbers are too low. And in a recent radio interview, science minister Geneviève Fioraso added to the fears of young researchers by suggesting that it would be "improper" to include doctors and postdocs in the pool of CDD employees eligible for permanent positions.

In the future, no more than 30% of ANR's funding could be used to pay CDD salaries, the ministry also announced last week. That could help provide some relief in the future, observers say. But if "we do not resolve the problem for the majority of the current staff on precarious contracts, it means that we are sacrificing a generation," Montfort says.

*Correction 5:35 p.m., 28 November: Short-term contracts are contrats à durée déterminée, not contrats à durée indéterminée, as the original version stated.

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