Who Are Vulnerable Workers in France and What Do They Need?

Who Are Vulnerable Workers in France and What Do They Need?

Who are vulnerable workers in France and what do they need?

Françoise Le Deist

Groupe Travail, Emploi, Santé, Toulouse Business School

20 boulevardLascrosses BP 7010, 31068 TOULOUSE cedex 7, France


Successive crises still afflicting European and global economies have dramatic consequences for employment and labour market integration. These crises have provoked a profound and sustained wave of restructuring affecting all sectors and types of organisations, and leading to massive job losses and levels of unemployment not seen since the Great Depression. In this context, vulnerable workers are particularly exposed in so far as their characteristics already reduce their access to employment. To better anticipate and manage their difficulties and optimise entry or return to the labour market it is necessary to define more precisely who are these vulnerable workers, what are their real needs and how they can be best become and remain economically active.


This paper reportson interim results,for France,of the Leonardo da Vinci project Supporting the Needs of Older and Vulnerable Employees.Coordinated by the General Federation of Trade Unions, London (UK), the partners include the research group Work, Employment and Health at Toulouse Business School (FR), the Balkans Institute of Labour and Social Policy, Sofia (BU), TyöväenAkatemia (Workers’ Academy), Kauniainen (FI) and the United Nations Staff Union representing employees of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague (NE).

Recent global changesinclude the reduced importance of national boundaries, deregulation of labour markets and more recently sustained economic crisis. Secure long-term employment, professional (re)insertion, and vocational training have been considerably damaged. Employees and jobseekers across all sectors and groups are becoming vulnerable to competition for jobs. Employers are attempting to keep businesses competitive in a difficult economic climate, with a continued move from products to services, and increasingly adopting organisational restructuring measures that directly affect workers, thereby shifting the risk to employees (Evans and Gibb 2009; ILO, 2011). Job loss is the primary and most dramatic effect of restructuring for labour, affecting the health of workers and adding to the challenge of long-term unemployment (Le Deist and Winterton 2012).

The aims of the project are to develop an understanding of the needs – training and otherwise – of older andvulnerable employees, as well as the needs of current and potentialemployers of the specified target groups.These groups are considered vulnerable for a variety of reasons. Some are vulnerable by virtue of characteristics that impede labour market entry or increase the likelihood of their becoming socially excluded. Others are vulnerable through risk ofbecoming unemployed and suffering financial instability through redundancy or other workplace change, particularly as a result of the global economic crisis.

Vulnerability in general refers to the ‘inability to withstand the effects of a hostile environment’. The duality of this definition is important: vulnerability is the result of an interaction between the individual’s personal characteristics and their environment. In an employment context, vulnerability implies the risk of social exclusion through difficulty in accessing the labour market, or of exploitation when in employment, regular or otherwise. The UK’s Health and Safety Executive describes vulnerable workers as ‘those who are at risk of having their workplace entitlements denied, and who lack the capacity or means to secure them’ (Health and Safety Executive, 4 June 2011). In considering the employment environment, increasing numbers of workers are at risk of becoming vulnerable as precarious work is generally on the increase throughout Europe (Broughtonet al. 2010; Riso 2010).

Following a thematic literature review, interviews have been conducted with employers, trade union officials and representatives of intermediary organisations, while focus groups are underway with members of the target groups (organised via the intermediary organisations). Interviews have explored the views of employers and intermediary groups concerning what specific target groups they regard as vulnerable and motives for seeking to employ (or not) individuals from such groups. Particular attention is paid to interviewees’ perceptions of the training needs of specific groups and evidence of what mechanisms have been effective (and ineffective) in promoting labour market reintegration of individuals from the target groups.

The thematic analysisof the literature review was used to structure the analysis of interviews and focus groups, thereby grounding the analysis in the lived experience of practitioners and vulnerable groups. The purpose is to explore similarities, differences and complementaritiesrespectively between enterprises, unions and intermediary organisations, and between these institutions and individuals from the selected categories:

in terms of how vulnerability is defined, understood, and lived;

in relation to perceived needs, good practice and priorities for action.

Literature review

Recognising that the list of groups of potentially vulnerable employees is almost never-ending, the literature review focused on what was perceived to be key target groups for this initiative designed to address labour market vulnerability, principally through training interventions. The following target groups are addressed:

  • Older workers (seniors)
  • Those in precarious work (travailleurs en situation d’emploiprécaire)
  • Low-skilled workers (personnespeuqualifiées)
  • Long-term unemployed (chômeurs de longue durée)
  • Migrant workers (travailleursétrangers)
  • Youth, including recent graduates (jeunestravailleurs y comprisdiplômés)
  • Ex-offenders (anciensprisonniers)
  • Handicapped or suffering a long-term illness (personneshandicapéesousortant de longue maladie)
  • Homeless (personnes sans domicile fixe)

Older workers

Across Europe, the ageing workforce of the ‘baby boomers’, increases (in most countries) in the retirement age and economic insecurity concerning pensions have all contributed to the need for older workers to stay in the labour market longer. In such a competitive market, the greying workforce has become vulnerable, under threat from discrimination, precarious work and early retirement or redundancy (Frazer and Sargeant 2009). Voluntary retirement is becoming a less attractive option in the current economic context, but as employers associate a younger workforce with reduced labour costs, there is increasing evidence that older workers are experiencing vulnerability and age discrimination (Foden and Jepsen 2002; Billettet al. 2011).

Much of the literature calls for more flexibility: from workers in considering positions and role changes such as mentoring, consulting or teaching; and from employers in offering more flexible contracts to older workers to give them greater liberty, whilst retaining job security.Fodenand Jepsen (2002) call for a holistic approachto effective age management involving all stakeholders, including policy-makers, employers, trade unions and older workers themselves.

Those in precarious work

Part-time, short-term or temporary contracts can be attractive to some workers, providing flexibility for young mothers, older workers and those adjusting their work-life balance. Flexibility, with appropriate safeguards for employment security (‘flexicurity’) can contribute to combatting unemployment. A decade before the Global Financial Crisis (GFC), a European study confirmed the link between precarious employment and poor working conditions but the results for part-time work depend upon the nature of the contracts involved: ‘part-time work is primarily chosen by people on stable contracts and is primarily imposed on people whose employment status is precarious.’ (Letourneux 1998: 60, emphasis added). It has been suggested that instead of the dichotomy unemployed/employed, attention should be focussed on precarious or unemployed/stable employment with good working conditions.

Temporary and part-time workcan be considered a stepping stone for some butrepresents precarious work for others. In the highly regulated French labour market, precarious jobs can be both ‘a preliminary to recruitment at the same time as a prelude to unemployment’ (Maruani and Reynaud 1993: 60). Across Europe and beyond, labour market deregulation, altered business practices, and employers seeking increased flexibility along with decreased risk and costs, havebeen associated with a lack of clarity, loss of rights, reduced training opportunities, together undermining job security and shifting risks onto employees (Barbieret al. 2002; Bhattacharyya et al. 2007; Burgess and Connell 2006; Evans and Gibb 2009; Kautonenet al. 2009; Keune 2011).

Evidence on the effect of less permanent forms of employment on worker health is ambiguous, but many studies found an association between employment insecurity and negative health outcomes. Lewchuket al (2008) developed the concept of ‘employment strain’ and identified key characteristics of the employment relationship associated with negative health outcomes, such as high employment uncertainty associated with high employment relationship effort. Since the GFC in particular, there is evidence of more precarious contracts and an increase in precarious work (Riso 2010). The Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD notes ‘it is increasingly clear that one of the most challenging and threatening features of the new global economy has been the rise of precarious employment’ (Evans and Gibb 2009: 13). Standing (2009) argues that such increasing precarity of work is creating a new social structure, an underclass that he has labelled the ‘Precariat’ (Standing 2011).

In addressing the needs of this growing, vulnerable and increasingly heterogeneous group, the literature calls for heightened representation and protection of temporary employees, increased vocational training to maintain their employability and compensate for the lack of long-term (re-)training, and a review of state support for those whose contracts change regularly and are at risk of becoming precarious.

Workers with few qualifications or in low-skilled jobs

This group is diverse in terms of age, experience and qualifications, since some low-skilled jobs are occupied by people with good qualifications who are unable to obtain commensurate positions. The problems facing young people who have not yet entered the labour market and are in the ‘NEET’ (not in employment, education or training) category are different from older workers who have substantial work experience but whose skills and qualifications offer few opportunities for re-employment when they are made redundant, typically because of reduced demand or because technological changes have rendered their skills obsolete. In the current context of high levels of youth unemployment, much attention has been focussed on this group. A recent study by the European Restructuring Monitor network across 28 countries found most have adopted policy measures addressing various NEET sub-groups to provide more tailored and personalised support because of the diversity of the NEET population (Eurofound 2012). The main issue is that labour market exclusion carries the risk of social exclusion:

Young people have been hit hard by the recession and their transition from education to work has become very difficult. This disengagement from the labour market may have lasting effects. It is certainly resulting in a growing core of disaffected youth who are distanced to such an extent from the labour market and from society itself that they need considerable support to re-engage. (Eurofound 2012: 2).

Difficulties confronting older workers with few qualifications or in low-skilled jobs are different and while low-skilled workers are particularly vulnerable in the current recession, their problems were highlighted when the European Employment Strategy was launched in 1997, a decade before the GFC. The Lisbon Strategy similarly acknowledged that in upgrading workforce skills for knowledge-based economy, policy initiatives to promote the employability and adaptability of such workers was essential. Low-skilled workers are particularly vulnerable to increasing technological complexity (Machin 2001) and new forms of work organisation (Lindbeck and Snower 2000) so need training to maintain employability (Sanders and De Grip 2004).

There is substantial evidence of an education premium and returns on training to individuals, employers and the state (Blundell et al. 1999; Groot and Massen van den Brink 2000). However, those with low skills and few qualifications are also disadvantaged by the so-called ‘Matthias principle’: qualified workers are more likely to be offered and to take up training opportunities (McCracken and Winterton 2006). Human capital development policies need to make special provision for the low skilled, particularly since this category also applies to many of the groups identified as vulnerable for other reasons (Heckman2000).

Long-term unemployed

In a UK welfare review undertaken before the GFC, it was noted:

Greater global economic integration and unprecedented demographic change present both challenges and opportunities. The pace of change in the global economy will put pressure on existing jobs. Parts of the economy are likely to be exposed to international competition to an extent that they have not been before, and the evidence suggests that this exposure will tend to further disadvantage the lowest skilled (Freud 2007: 5).

The ‘working poor’ is a recurrent phrase in recent literature, reflecting the growth of people existing on a combination of temporary work and benefits, or relying on benefits that pay more than low-skilled jobs available. Such groups stay out of work longer, their opportunities for long-term professional security decrease with lack of experience, training, and length of time off of the market making them increasingly unattractive to employers. Employers often stigmatise the unemployed and policy-makers need to address such discrimination, which is not unlawful because unemployed status is not protected like gender, age or ethnic origin.

Training in vocational and social skills is important both for the workers and potential employers, and governments have an interest in assuring solid, personalized job search support (CV, letter writing, interview techniques and personal development) to keep the time out of work as short as possible.

Migrant workers

Across Europe, migrant workers are finding work, but mainly in jobs with poor working conditions and job security (Taran, 2009) that areunacceptable to indigenous workers (Forde and MacKenzie 2009), a ‘sensitive and contentious issue’ (Denchet al. 2006). Placing this group high up the vulnerable hierarchy are language barriers, misunderstanding of rights, employers’ non-recognition of foreign qualifications, and cultural differences, leading to insecurity and occasionally employer abuse (EDNPAS 2009; Griffin 2008; Quinlan and Sokas 2009).

Training programmes have been devised to improve languageskills, build awareness of employment rightsand develop organisational skills to combat discrimination, but some have failed due to ‘constant changes in government policies, and the inefficiency and prejudices of the training and employing organisations involved’ (Ogbonna, 1998).

Youth and recent graduates

Youth unemployment has risen dramatically since the 2008 GFC, by on average 10 percentage points in 5 years, and is now over 25 per cent in several member states. The ‘Lost Generation’, today’s youth find access to the labour market increasingly difficultand recent graduates who have invested in university education often accept jobs that do not need a degree. Employers avoid recruiting candidates with little or no work experience, yet are reluctant to provide first work opportunities leading to a vicious circle where early unemployment experience causes long-term damage (to individuals and the economy). Employers argue that vocational training and higher education inadequately prepareyoung people for the labour market and that raising employability imposes costs on employers (Blenkinsopp and Scurry 2011).

For initial labour market entry, education and training should include adequate work experience, facilitated by strong partnerships between employers and universities or vocational schools to ensure curricula are relevant to changing labour market needs.


This group suffers from serious barriers to employment, resulting from three major disadvantages: a criminal record;gaps in education and employment; and paucity of support on leaving prison.

Given the socio-economic cost of re-offending and the clear recognition that employment is a major factor in rehabilitation and reducing recidivism, most countries have established educational initiatives, work programmes and specific pre-release support. Such initiatives do notcompensate for employers preferring candidates without a criminal record and recruiting low-risk employees. Moreover, the inevitable gaps in education and work experience associated with a prison term means that many ex-offenders can only access low-skilled, low-paid jobs so are likely to re-offend. The importance of an intensive pre- and post-release support network: training, personal development and job search assistance, as well as the need for more partnerships to lower employers’perceptions of risk, offer ex-offenders the best long-term opportunitiesfor professional reintegration and escape from the vicious cycle of recidivism (Lafoucriere and Winterton 2001).

Handicappedor suffering a long-term illness

Workers suffering from physical handicaps have had more employment choice over the last two decades, with strict anti-discrimination laws, financial incentives (or penalties) and government regulations encouraging employers to consider the bigger picture when recruiting. The education of the public in general and employers in particular has made society more sensitiveand flexible concerning the needs of disabled employees and larger companies oftenhave diversity policies to facilitate employing handicapped workers, particularly in countries where there is a tax incentive.

For employees having or recovering from long-term illness, employment laws generally offer protection for those in employment, but for those seeking employment, employers may be reluctant to take the risk of recruiting someone with an illness and potential sickness absence.Recurrent sickness absence increases the risk of grievances and employment tribunal claims.

Three needs are paramount for workers with a handicapor suffering from a long-term illness: vocational training and rehabilitation for employees(Kärrholmet al. 2006; Selanderet al. 1998); recognition of their educational needs and flexibility by employers); and greater responsibility, from both.

The homeless

There is a wide consensus in the literature that the homeless are extremely vulnerable in many respects and in need of support in many other areas before professional (re)insertion can even be considered. For the homeless,labour market integration is a route to long-term rehabilitation and survival since escaping homelessness is virtually impossible without a job. The reasons why an individual becomes homeless and associated multiple deprivations need to be addressed urgently in a comprehensive,bespoke manner. The young homeless are particularly vulnerable and need urgent support to re-enter society(European Research Area 2011).