Interview with Marco Rocca, Permanent Researcher, French National Center for Scientific Research, University of Strasbourg.

To get started, could you tell us a little bit about yourself? What’s your current role? What are some of the things that have interested you that have propelled you into this field?

Most of my working time is dedicated to research and I also teach some classes at the University of Strasbourg. How did I get here? Well it was kind of a long path: I did my studies in Italy up until the Master, and then went to Belgium in the French speaking region for my PhD. And then I had three postdoctoral experiences in Belgium, the French speaking side, Italy, and then again in Belgium in the Dutch speaking side, after which I arrived in France and at the National Center for Scientific Research. My research deals mainly with topics of temporary labour migration in the European Union and transnational employment situations. I started mainly from the collective aspect, and now I’m dealing more with individual labour law aspects and social security.

What about this project interested you in particular? What is the particular role you play?

My role is mainly coordinating the French team, which developed the two French reports and the two French case studies. Both doing the research and coordinating the team. My interest for the VIRAL project is very much connected to my research interests and what I have been doing in the last couple of years. So as I said, my research interests are very much into transnational situations of employment and aviation, although it is a niche sector, came more and more on my radar, related to which competent jurisdiction and which employment rights were applicable to this hypermobile workforce. So there was this connection with my research interests, and on the other hand, I’ve been involved in the last couple of years in research projects focusing on specific sectors. I’ve been working on the meat industry, the live performance industry. And in this sense, I enjoyed the chance, because lawyers always look at the broader picture and the system of labour law, for instance, and rarely go into the specificities of a given sector. But I have found that once you go into the specifics, you tend to face new questions and interesting interactions. So, based on that experience, looking at a different sector was very, very interesting to me. Finally, it was also a team I had already worked with, and that was also an important element to convince me that this was going to be an effective team, able to work together.

One of the interesting dynamics within the air transport sector is that it is, at the same time, one of the most fully multi-national sectors of the global economy (in terms of both labour and capital mobility across national borders) and the nation-state context, particularly with respect to labour relations, also matters significantly. What do you make of this interplay?

I think there is always the element of disturbance when you insert a transnational element in a given system. Because, for instance, looking at industrial relations, you have companies based in a given country, let’s say France, that respect a series of standards. Sometimes they might be legal standards, but they might also be industrial relations standards that are not legally enforceable and depend on, for instance, pressure from strikes, or the threat of collective action, and so on. So you have this system that more or less works and has a history and a path dependency, and then you insert this transnational element of companies bringing in different practices, different managerial cultures and so on. It is a fascinating situation: how will the system work with this disturbance? Will it be able to include these new practices, cover them, change them, and so on and so forth? And on a more legal perspective, you have all the issues of applicable legislation, applicable working conditions, and so on. And the European system with the instruments of posting of workers, in particular, has some tools to deal with these situations. They are not always perfect. They are not always easy to apply to such a mobile workforce, as in aviation, and they can lead to abuses and tensions. So if there is a perception of other players not playing by the rules, this, of course can cause pushback and tensions in a given national system or it can cause a reduction in standards for everyone, as the system tries to cope with the increased competition. And we have seen practices such as wet leasing, mentioned many times across our reports, so the practice of renting an aeroplane, sometimes with the crew, with the question: what working conditions apply to these?

Can you explain more about what “wet leasing” is?

Essentially you are renting an aeroplane that you don’t own in order to operate a flight. This is quite common, as we discovered, and even prevalent in some situations and some companies. And then sometimes this renting of an aeroplane includes renting the crew running the aeroplane, and the cabin crew. So the question is, when you are, let’s say a French company and you rent an aeroplane from a different country, what are the working conditions applicable to these people who might be flying from a French airport, and come back to a French airport. So these people are not at all covered by the working conditions and social security of the country where they might be flying from and flying back to. So this of course immediately causes a concern about social dumping, race to the bottom and so on and so forth. And also because working conditions are linked to the well-being of the worker, and also working conditions, working time, safety, and so on.

Can you share a bit about some of what makes France unique, in terms of labour relations and aviation in particular?

The French system of labour relations is peculiar: it is a so-called “state-centric system” where the state and the law play a very important role in regulating and enforcing practices of industrial relations. There is a bizarre situation of very low rates of unionisation — one of the lowest in the European Union — but at the same time, very strong trade union presence. And when collective action, let’s say a strike, is called, France is almost famous for their strikes. Particularly in aviation, and we have just witnessed and experienced that. So this is the situation: very low unionisation, although quite present unions and a quite important state, let’s say public machinery for the extension of sectoral collective agreements, which covers an entire branch of an industry and can be extended to cover everyone working in such an industry, so that the coverage for collective bargaining agreements in France is extremely high, one of the highest of the European Union. And there is a plurality of unions: there are at least five trade unions.

And the interesting part here, again for research, is how aviation, in particular for the “professions up in the air,” so, cabin crews and pilots, goes completely against these French traditions. Notably, there is no sectoral collective agreement covering pilots and cabin crews in France. So, already this is a huge deviation and unionisation rates are extremely high in these professions, ranging from 60 to 70% to higher, and in some companies among pilots essentially 100%. So this is again an incredible deviation due to several historical trends in the sector. But this also means that industrial relations are very different, because once you don’t have this sectoral collective agreement and company level agreements become paramount to regulating working condition which otherwise revert back to the bare, legislative minimum, which can be a very low in particular on the possibility of working and extended amount of time. And so because of that, it creates a sort of a different system of industrial relations inside the French system.

So then is the aviation system in France in an industrial relations “bubble,” or are there mechanisms, for example for extending contract coverage, within the sector nonetheless?

It is a bubble, meaning if there is no sectoral collective agreement there is no possibility for the machinery to work and extend it because there is no agreement to be extended. It is a bubble, it is an exception and with some difficulties in several aspects because of this because. It’s a system that has to work in a different way. There is still space for the public machinery in other aspects, in particular imposing rules on representation and information and consultation, the organisation of elections of workplace representatives and so on. And there were companies, let’s say in the low cost sector which were reluctant to organise elections for workers representatives established, and they were forced to do so by the public machinery and court cases. So there is still a space for this state-centric system to function, but it cannot completely fill the void of the sectoral collective agreement.

One of your roles on this project is that of co-coordinator of the phase that focuses on individual case studies within partner countries. You’ve read through these case studies. What themes emerge for you? What analyses emerge from a careful reading of these case studies?

Of course we looked at case studies in the context of a period of upheaval and change under the Covid-19 crisis and the following lockdowns, which, of course, were very impactful on this sector. So we also chose to investigate this because of the disproportionate impact of Covid on the sector. So one common trend across these case studies, unsurprisingly, is change—the fact that the whole sector, including industrial relations, had to adapt to a new situation, which put pressure on established practices, and so on and so forth. So there was a lot of change going on during the time of Covid. And the second part of these findings is that a lot of these changes are not limited to the start of the crisis and they actually extend afterwards. So we have seen in some case studies pressure put on working conditions in a time of crisis, pressure which was ultimately successful in worsening working conditions, lowering wages, increasing working time and so on, and an after-effect of this pressure, that is now the new normal, okay? So an increase of tension in the aftermath of the crisis where trade unions, and workers believed that these changes should be rolled back in light of the picking up of activity and the return to a normal situation. But of course this was not necessarily achieved. So one trend was change and continuity of change. The second trend, which was quite clear in many case studies, was the role of public intervention and the interventional state or other public authorities, through different means, but in general the idea of supporting the sector in a time of crisis where most companies saw revenues fall through the floor.

In this sense we have seen two families of situations, where sometimes the public intervention was successful and helped maintain employment, preserve workforce levels, skills and also allowing for consensual social dialogue because public intervention allowed for “win-win” situations and this created situations of good climate of social dialogue and a more consensual exit from the crisis, without the baggage of tensions and recriminations. On the other hand, we’ve seen situations where this was absent. There was no public intervention or if there was, it was not sufficient or it was aimed at actually having workers accept this worsening of working conditions. And so in these cases we’ve seen a more conflictual exit from the crisis, and now an after-effect on mutual trust and one which might have repercussions over a longer time period beyond this crisis.

On top of these two trends, there is an overarching situation in the sector, which in many countries, as in the case of France, the company level is the main level for the regulation of working conditions. And we have seen again two situations, one with these was this remained very much the case with companies negotiating more far reaching reductions of labour costs, worsening of conditions, increase the working time and so on and other situations where there was a renewed appetite for sectoral regulation, or multi-employer regulation, let’s say to regulate the site or the entire airport value chain, for instance. So in general an enlargement of the scope, from the negotiation with the single company, to multiple companies or the entire sector. So there is a renewed pressure for this, which to an extent is unsurprising: Where things go bad, there is a feeling that having standards in order to avoid a full race to the bottom is actually useful. So as researchers, it will be interesting to see if these pressures are enough to maintain this momentum and will we see a recentralisation of collective bargaining, which again can be at the sector level, at the site level or multi-employer level. But anyway, a centralization from a purely company level setting of working conditions in the sector, which is an interesting point, going forward, because our belief guiding the project is that this is not the last crisis for the aviation industry. You know, future trends, the general instability of the word and so on and so forth. So we believe that these trends that we are witnessing are interesting to try and understand what might happen in the next crisis.

These comments bring us eloquently toward our last question: if you could wave a magic wand and have policy-makers enact one change, what would that be?

It is difficult to focus on just one, so this will be hard. Of course, there is the environmental question, but I won’t go into this because this isn’t my field. I’ll focus on the social side and the elements I’ve picked up from the case studies. I have two directions I would like to go. So the two directions are, of course, the role of the state in supporting change during crisis. Broadly defined. And the second is the centralisation aspect.. So what we have seen in the project is in many situations a clear pressure on working conditions and social dialogue. Pressures come very much from the absence of standards. Collective standards at various at various levels, but all can fall under the umbrella of centralisation.

In my view, from what we saw, from the case studies and the reports, there is a need to ensure a floor of rights in terms of working conditions, wages, working time and also collective bargaining and negotiation that extends along the whole sector in every given country, again to be achieved in different ways, according to different industrial relations traditions. But the risk of race to the bottom is there. And it’s a sector exposed to such massive international competition, that this is clearly there. And it’s been clearly raised by all our interviews. And there are always companies that relish in this pressure and make a business model of this. So this is not, this is just what they perceive from the market. So they just act as rational actors and so on. So this is not in itself a critique of this model, although again, I can’t do that.

But there is the different perspective, more a perspective of, “in the end races to the bottom are self defeating.” So in a sector which has important safety requirements, and so on and so forth, the establishment of a minimum floor of rights, remuneration and also collective rights, in terms of representation, information consultation and collective bargaining, should be something that the sector introduces according to national traditions in the direction of centralisation. There is also the need for clearer European guidance on these transnational situations, and the application of rules to the situations. So, I’m talking of wet lease, but I’m also talking of other potential delicate situations which need clearer rules and clearer enforcement to make it less appealing to have this sort of fragmentation and business model. Again, as I said, I understand the rational case for these models, that’s what we need to do in terms of public intervention to produce the incentive and the possibilities for these business cases. So the idea is very much again, one of centralisation and one where European level intervention might ensure the application of correct national rules and even potentially social security rules, in order to make the fragmentation less appealing, the fragmentation in the sector, and lead to the harmonisation of minimum standards, which is a necessary floodgate against the race to the bottom, which is ultimately damaging not only for workers for social dialogue, but then for society at large, and for the safety of passengers and workers in the, in the sector.

Marco, thank you so much for your time today. It’s been a pleasure and we look forward to seeing what recommendations come out of this project, following the June 8th meeting in Brussels.

Thank you.

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