France: A legal right to switch off from work

On 19 June 2013, France’s social partners adopted a national interprofessional agreement on well-being at work which encourages businesses to find ways of avoiding intrusion on employees' private lives by defining periods when devices can be switched off and no company emails will be sent. The aim is to improve working conditions but also to avoid legal disputes.

Background

France’s so-called ‘35 hours a week reform’, Law No. 2008-789 of 20 August 2008 on renewal of social democracy and reform of working time (in French), makes it possible, through collective agreements, to fix the number of working days a year expected of managers and ‘autonomous employees’ for whom it is not possible to calculate working time. Because the French Supreme Court has rejected several provisions in collective agreements that set such limits on working time, social partners have negotiated amendments to increase protection for employees. Meanwhile, in some sectors and companies, the social partners are trying to protect workers’ private lives by developing the principle of a ‘right to switch off’ ICT devices during the compulsory rest period of 11 hours between two working days.

Landmark agreement on quality of working life

After nine months of negotiation, an agreement was signed by social partners in France on the quality of working life and professional equality, the National Interprofessional Agreement of 19 June 2013 towards a policy of improving the quality of working life and professional equality (91.7 KB PDF, in French). The agreement was signed by all three of the country’s employer organisations. Three of the five union confederations put their names to the document – the French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT), the General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff (CFE-CGC), and the French Christian Workers’ Confederation (CFTC). The two other representative trade unions, the General Confederation of Labour (CGT) and the General Confederation of Labour–Force Ouvrière (CGT-FO), refused to sign.

The agreement, summarised in a EurWORK article in August 2013, contains a series of measures to ‘improve the quality of life at work, the reconciliation of time and professional equality’. It asks social partners to look at the way in which technology allows work to intrude on employees’ private lives through the use of devices such as laptops and smartphones. There is a suggestion that agreement could be reached on a period of time during which internet connectivity between the worker and the workplace could be suspended.

Sectoral-level agreement

On 11 December 2012, before the landmark agreement, social partners within the construction sector amended two of their national collective agreements. One covers managers, and the other employees and technicians.

The amendment that affects managers, Avenant n° 1 du 11 décembre 2012 relatif à la convention de forfait en jours, was signed by two employers’ organisations, the National Federation of Public Works (FNTP) and the public works section of the Federation of Cooperative Societies for the Production of Building and Public Works (Fédération Scop BTP). The union signatories were the four representative unions (CFDT, CFTC, CFE-CGC and CGT-FO).

The aim was to rewrite provisions of the ‘forfait-jours’ system following the Supreme Court’s decisions. In these amendments, social partners made it clear that a manager (or an ‘autonomous worker’) is entitled to rest time and respect for their private life and, in particular, has the right to decide to make limited use of communication tools when not on duty. An amendment to the collective agreement (in French, 5.4 MB PDF) of the engineering and consulting sector, signed on 1 April 2014, goes further. It stipulates that the employee has an ‘obligation to switch off remote communication devices’ during minimum rest periods of 11 hours a day and 35 hours per week. Furthermore, the employer must ensure that the employee is able to switch off. The amendment was signed by the two main employers’ organisations (Fédération Syntec and CINOV) and two unions (CFE-CGC and CFDT).

Company-level agreements

This right to switch off had already been included in an agreement dated 31 May 2012 on the development of well-being at work within the nuclear energy Areva group. The text invites every employee to disconnect from the company network and not to send emails outside normal working hours.

At electronics specialists Thales, a group agreement dated 4 February 2014 on well-being at work grants ‘a right to disconnect outside company opening hours’, or at least ‘for the duration of the legal daily and weekly rest periods’. Line management also undertakes not to send emails during these periods.

To avoid receiving emails during rest periods, the social protection company Reunica has opted for a more radical solution. The company’s mail system will switch off between 20.00 and 07.00 on weekdays and from Friday at 20.00 to Monday at 07.00, so that nobody (except top managers) may send emails during these periods. Four unions approved this agreement – CFE-CGC, CFDT, CGT and the National Union of Autonomous Trade Unions (UNSA). The agreement stipulates that ‘every employee has the right of respect during rest periods and no interference with private life, including limited use, through their own initiative, of communication means’.

For reference, in Germany, the option to prevent the sending of emails was agreed in February 2014 by automotive manufacturer BMW and the union IG Metall.

Social partner reactions

On the employers’ side, the ‘right to switch off’ is part of a global approach to avoid penal sanctions in case of work-related injuries or illness of an employee who would be able to prove a link between his or her illness or accident and long working hours.

All unions have signed such agreements, which are popular with their members. The union UGICT-CGT (the section of the CGT representing managers) launched a ‘right to disconnect’ information campaign in September 2014, in favour of ‘the right to switch off and a real decrease in working time’ and held a seminar on the subject on 15 October 2014. The union wants to reinforce regulation about calculating working time, ‘forfait-jours’ and telework. It also wants a framework governing the use of communication and information technologies as well as business travel.

Commentary

Asking workers to ‘switch off’ on their own initiative seems a weak solution, especially for the young generation that is always ‘connected’. Switching off the email providers of the company could be a better solution, even if employees would have to face a huge number of emails when they return to work in the morning. As noted by labour law professor Jean-Emmanuel Ray (2014),‘the victim here is also often the persecutor’ (‘Droit du travail, Droit vivant’, Liaisons sociales magazine). This means that measures have to be put in place to prevent 24-hour emailing to reduce employees’ exposure to excessive electronic messages. One good practice could be the programme launched in 2011 by the company ATOS, which expects to become a ‘zero email’ company. According to the company, its ‘zero email programme’ is powerful because it focuses on reducing the overall number of messages sent. So far in 2014 it has saved 25% of work time previously spent on email and reduced disruptions and email overload by 60% – down from an average of 100 internal emails per employee per week to 40. Furthermore a certification process has resulted in 220 business processes being redesigned to become ‘email free’. To increase quality of life at work, the first step should be to reduce the number of emails workers send in copy to all their colleagues.

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