Psychological/moral harassment at work to be included in Labour Code

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"Moral" or "psychological" harassment at work - essentially bullying - is currently high on the French political agenda. In January 2001, while debating a "social modernisation" bill, parliament proposed including the concept in the Labour Code. In April 2001, the Economic and Social Council called for a more all-encompassing definition of such harassment and for its recognition as an occupational hazard, with resulting disorders to be considered industrial illnesses. The Council is also pushing for this type of harassment to be included in the civil service regulations and the Criminal Code.

In January 2001, during consideration of the government's "social modernisation" bill - which focuses mainly on promoting stable employment by limiting precarious jobs and redundancies and fostering the continuous adaptation of workers' skills - members of the National Assembly decided to insert the notion of "moral" or "psychological" harassment (harcèlement moral) at work - essentially bullying - into the Labour Code (FR0101121F). A definition of such harassment was approved by the National Assembly at first reading. Previously, in May 2000, the Prime Minister had referred the moral harassment to the consultative Economic and Social Council (Conseil économique et social, CES), which submitted its report in March 2001. At a plenary session on 11 April 2001, the Council adopted an opinion on the issue.

This opinion, drawn up by the medical examiner Michel Debout, seeks to define and ban moral harassment in the Labour Code (Code du travail) and in the general civil service regulations (which cover civil servants and government employees). The CES is advocating that moral harassment be governed by the same penalties as sexual harassment and that it be recognised as an occupational hazard. According to the Council: "any repeated behaviour having a negative effect on human, inter-relational or material conditions at the workplace for one or more persons, infringing their rights and dignity and potentially seriously affecting their health and career constitutes moral harassment at work."

The CES definition goes further than the National Assembly's proposal, which limited moral harassment to top-down relationships at work. Instead, the Council is proposing the extension of the notion of such harassment to anyone in the workplace, be they colleague or subordinate. It believes that harassment has to be identified, punished and prevented in all situations, including in state-run or private companies, and between colleagues, between bosses and subordinates or vice versa. In addition, the CES proposals are a step towards the recognition of moral harassment as an occupational hazard and any disorders arising from it as occupational illness and, therefore, eligible for compensation. Moreover, Mr Debout, the opinion's author, is pushing for the adoption of criminal provisions in the Criminal Code (Code pénal) on the grounds that such behaviour harms a person's integrity and dignity.

This opinion met with varying reactions among CES members. The representatives of the CFDT, CFE-CGC, CGT, CGT-FO and UNSA trade unions supported it, whereas the MEDEF employers' confederation voted against it and representatives of several other groups, such as craftworkers, state-run companies and the professions, as well as the CFTC union, abstained. In light of these misgivings, the Minister of Employment and Solidarity, Elisabeth Guigou, adopted a reassuring tone, while underscoring the importance of moral harassment in the workplace as it relates to three of her major priority issues: the improvement of working conditions; the protection of health; and the eradication of discrimination. She also stated that she shared the Economic and Social Council's view that moral harassment should be considered an occupational hazard. She said that "this hazard potentially exists in all workplaces and is not merely limited to top-down employment relationships". The Minister also recognised that it falls on companies and, more generally, on all "work communities" to prevent the development of such behaviour.

The debate on moral harassment in general and on an appropriate definition, as well as the preventive and disciplinary measures needed to tackle it, will continue when consideration of the social modernisation bill resumes in the Senate and National Assembly. Moral harassment in the workplace is not a new phenomenon, but public and government recognition of it is.

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