Agreement eases tension at Flamanville nuclear site

A collective agreement governing conditions for workers at the site of a new nuclear reactor was signed on 29 June 2012 by management from the French energy group EDF and five trade unions. More than 3,000 people are involved in the construction of the reactor at Flamanville and allegations of poor management have been levelled against EDF on several occasions since work began in 2008, particularly about the living and working conditions of the site’s foreign employees.

Background

Agreement has been reached at the territorial level of the Département of Seine-Maritime on working conditions at the nuclear reactor construction site of Flamanville. French energy giant EDF is building the reactor, and the new agreement is intended to improve the provision of information, work safety, and management-union communications at Flamanville.

The agreement was signed by EDF and the five unions recognised at the site; the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), the French Democratic Federation of Labour (CFDT), Force ouvrière (FO), the French Christian Workers’ Confederation (CFTC), and the French Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff – General Confederation of Professional and Managerial Staff (CFE-CGC). The new agreement commits the state-owned company to improving systems for providing information to employees.

EDF Site Director Antoine Ménager said: ‘This is the result of discussions that began early this year.’

Jack Tord, the CGT Site Co-ordinator, said: ‘The agreement is a move towards extending workers’ rights.’

Difficult circumstances at Flamanville

The significance of this agreement is only fully apparent in the context of the difficult circumstances that formed the backdrop to the negotiations.

EDF is the leading partner on the site near Cherbourg in north-west France where there are already two nuclear reactors in service. Bouygues Construction and its subsidiaries are responsible for the construction of the new generation European Pressurised Reactor (EPR) nuclear power plant. The work is now coming to an end, although there are currently still 3,100 employees on site, excluding the EDF personnel.

Completion of the plant is well past its original deadline. The project is behind schedule by around four years and the situation at the site is tense.

Allegations of poor management have been levelled against EDF on several occasions since work began in 2008, particularly about the living and working conditions of the site’s foreign employees. In the 12-month period to the end of 2011, hours of work lost through workplace accidents stood at 23.47 per one million working hours, compared to 17.5 in the previous year. This was confirmed by EDF at a press conference presenting the 2011 annual report on the Flamanville site’s operations.

A further development in 2011 was that the courts opened four preliminary investigations into events at the site, two related to fatal accidents in January and June, and two others following breaches of employment law reported by the French Nuclear Safety Authority (ASN).

Allegations of malpractice

In March 2012, an exemplary legal action began concerning the alleged misuse of the European directive on posted workers. .

The legal action involves Bouygues Construction and Atlanco-Rimec, a Cyprus-based temporary employment agency that supplied a workforce of 200 Polish workers. They face legal action brought by 45 of these workers who claim that the agency withheld up to 30% of their salaries for income tax and social security contributions. However, as no tax declaration was made until 2011, the workers did not have a European Community Card to ensure that their healthcare costs would be covered within the European Economic Area.

The Polish migrant workers’ association and the local branch of the CGT were alerted to the situation of these workers.

Monika Karbowska, Chair of the Polish Migrant Workers’ Association, said: ‘If people were injured, they were immediately sent back to Poland, where they had no medical cover because they hadn’t paid any contributions.’

At the end of June 2011, the ASN, which carries out labour inspections at the Flamanville site, ordered Bouygues Construction to sever all links with Atlanco-Rimec. Temporary staff were sent back to Poland immediately where, their lawyer Wladyslaw Lis reported, they were not entitled to unemployment benefit.

The French court will have to decide if the Directive on the posting of workers applied, and in which country social security contributions should be paid. As a result of this case, a plan to clarify the posted workers directive is under consideration.

Conciliatory agreement

The signing of the agreement on 29 June 2012, just as the legal action was starting and work at the site was being completed, should ease the situation.

The agreement has two significant provisions. Firstly, the agreement insists that employees are given sufficient information to ensure their safety. Recalling that French employment law provides the legal framework applicable to subcontractor companies, the document states that an induction booklet, translated into several languages, is to be given to each employee.

Information points and places to take preventative action are to be organised and developed, and accommodation and leisure facilities inspected.

The agreement will be monitored by a committee which will include managers from organisations covering all the companies operating at the site. These include the chair of the inter-company health, safety and working conditions committee (CISSCT), the chair of the inter-company association (AIE), Département-level trade union representatives and some employees from companies working at the site.

Secondly, a social clause in the agreement enshrines commitments EDF has already made concerning its external service providers. This agreement means that when recruiting at local level, EDF must give priority to people who find it difficult to get work, such as long-term unemployed young people, those with no qualifications and women returning after maternity leave. EDF is also participating in the outplacement of employees once their work at Flamanville is finished.

Commentary

Although tensions at the Flamanville site have eased somewhat, the events of the past few years highlight practices in the European construction sector which socially responsible businesses and regulatory authoritiescan no longer disregard. The situation also highlights weaknesses in the implementation of the EU directive on the posting of workers.

Hélène TISSANDIER, IR Share

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