Accueil » 46-4 ( 1991) » Contrôle du travail et absences de courte durée: une étude empirique

Contrôle du travail et absences de courte durée: une étude empirique

Jacques Bélanger, Michèle Bilodeau et Alain Vinet


Au-delà du comportement individuel, l'absence s'inscrit dans une dynamique sociale. À partir d'une étude de terrain dans une grande entreprise québécoise, cet article associe le phénomène des absences brèves et autorisées à un modèle de contrôle du travail caractérisé par l'autonomie ouvrière et une relation de coopération sur le plancher de production. La gestion des absences était l'une des composantes de la relation d'échange entre le superviseur et les subordonnés, ce qui permettait d'atténuer les effets de l'absence et d'évacuer toute dimension conflictuelle. De façon générale, l'absence de courte durée représentait toujours une source d'incertitude, mais son effet sur la productivité était très faible.


There is a small body of sociological literature which suggests that absenteeism is a form of individual behaviour which can only be properly understood as part of the social dynamics evolving at the workplace. This article presents some fieldwork material from a large Quebec engineering factory. Its objective is to enquire into the expected association between control over labour and short-term absenteeism by analysing a rich series of data covering a period of 14 months, from May 1986 to the end of June 1987. The analysis only concerns the spells of absence of three consecutive days or less, because such events of short duration are obviously more likely to be influenced by social control and choices. It is worth stressing first that these periods of absence lasting three days or less, and thus considered as short-term, make up more than two-thirds of al spells of absence in this plant. And these events, which exclude those registered under the category «lateness», are almost entirely made up of absences of a day or less. Table 1 shows that of the 3509 periods of absence in the factory, no less than 58,8% were authorized by the supervisor. In the large department of equipment installation where we conducted observation, two-third of all episodes of absence were authorized and only 15,5% were registered as unauthorized absence. In the same department, no less than 78,1% of employees were absent at least once during the 14 month period (Table 2), and 42,5% of these took four periods of absence or more (Table 3).

Field research helps us to understand the high proportion of authorized

absences, especially in the equipment department. It would seem that behaviour was influenced by the specifie form of labour control observed in the factory. This pattern of control was characterized by autonomy and much cooperation on the part of workers in their production activity. This, of course, depended on an exchange relationship between workers and supervisors, each party finding a strategic advantage. The management of short-duration absences was very decentralized and relied greatly on the informal relationship between workers and their supervisors. The latter had great discretion over the authorization of each spell of absence and the overall assessment of each case in the eventual application of disciplinary measures. The fieldwork also allowed us to observe a set of particular arrangements made on the shop-floor, as and when the need arose, concerning the authorization of absence by the supervisor and the means to alleviate its effects on production. Given the method of fabrication, it was absolutely necessary that the work was completed at each station before the end of the shift. In such a context, absences represented an important source of uncertainty for the supervisors, and organizational means were anticipated to alleviate this uncertainty. These social arrangements shaped individual behaviour in a way which resulted in the alleviation of the effects of absence and in a dissipation of any conflictual dimension.