Labour inspectorate reform comes into effect

The structure of the labour inspectorate in France has been under discussion since 2012. Reforms have now come into effect but have not been universally welcomed by the social partners. The aim is to improve the efficiency of the labour inspectorate by giving it a new structure and additional powers. However, while trade unions oppose much of the new framework, employer organisations are unhappy with tougher financial penalties for violations of labour law.

Background

On 29 October 2013, French Labour Minister Michel Sapin sent a government statement (in French, 1MB PDF) to the departments of his ministry about the implementation of labour inspectorate reform. The reform was later the subject of a paper on the reform of the labour inspectorate (in French) presented to France’s Council of Ministers on 6 November 2013.

The proposal had already been approved by the joint technical committee, a body that brings together representatives of the ministry and trade union organisations. This was despite opposition from three trade unions, the General Confederation of Labour (CGT), Force Ouvrière (FO) and the United Union Federation (FSU). The French Democratic Confederation of Labour (CFDT), and the National Federation of Independent Unions (UNSA) abstained from the committee’s vote on the reforms.

Changes to legislation are needed before the changes can be made and the reforms are to be incorporated in a draft bill due to be examined by the French Parliament in early 2014. Minister Sapin said that the restructured labour inspectorate would be operating by the end of 2014.

Inspectorate to become a single body

Until now, the labour inspectorate has consisted of two groups of civil servants. At the end of 2012 there were 743 labour inspectors with extensive powers, while the 2,236 labour controllers with more limited authority deal only with companies with fewer than 50 employees.

The reform establishes a single body of labour inspectors. Decree No. 2013-875 of 27 September 2013 sets the timetable for a phased reclassification of inspectors beginning on 1 October 2013, and the redeployment of controllers to the role of labour inspector. The ministry estimates this process will take ten years to complete.

Introduction of control units

The labour inspectorate’s organisation will be restructured. From 2014, ‘control units’ will bring together the current regional labour inspection ‘sections’ that have general responsibility for upholding the Labour Code. These units will be made up of between eight and 12 officials. The aim is for them to develop what Minister Sapin describes as ‘a more collective approach’.

At regional level, the aim is that control units will improve the handling of specific risks such as asbestos-handling and of issues in the construction and public works sector. They will be staffed by officials with specific expertise. A separate support and control unit for illegal work will also be created.

New inspectorate powers

The labour inspectorate’s powers will be extended. Their power to close dangerous workplaces currently applies exclusively to the construction and public works sector (Labour Code, art. L.4731-1) and it will be widened to cover all businesses. The reforms also create new administrative and financial penalties for certain violations of the code.

Criminal sanctions under labour law are also to be strengthened. These measures are detailed in a draft bill (in French, 33 KB PDF) presented to the National Council of the Labour Inspectorate on 28 November 2013. An employer’s refusal to halt operations when the labour inspectorate orders it to do so will be punishable by a fine of up to €10,000 – a big increase in the current maximum penalty of €3,750 fine – and a maximum 12-month prison term.

In addition, the ministry plans to reduce the 18 priority tasks assigned to the labour inspectorate. To improve efficiency, the inspectorate will have up to four priority tasks nationally, with the possibility of adding regional priorities according to specific needs. These priorities will be defined after consultation with the social partners and inspectors.

Social partner reaction

The reforms have been strongly opposed by a number of trade union organisations. On 23 October 2013, in response to a call by CGT, Force Ouvrière, FSU, Trade Union Solidarity (SUD) and the National Labour Confederation (CNT), hundreds of inspectors and controllers took strike action and demonstrated outside the Ministry of Labour.

The unions fear that labour inspectorate civil servants will lose their independence and their general powers of intervention as a result of the reforms. At federation level, the tone of union opposition has been more moderate and certain organisations, including CFDT, support large parts of the proposals.

On the employers’ side, the reaction has been more muted. The Confederation of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (CGPME) released a statement (in French) expressing concern at the increased penalties.

‘We are troubled by the idea that it is necessary for controls and sanctions to be strengthened,’ said Jean-François Pilliard, Vice-President of the Movement of French Enterprises (Medef) in Le Monde on 8 November 2013. He said the government would do better to focus on simplifying the rules.

The Secretary General of the Craftwork Employers’ Association (UPA), Pierre Burban, believes that instead of tougher sanctions, reform should focus on giving inspectors a ‘more educational role’.

Commentary

The main objective of labour inspectorate reform is to make the organisation more efficient. Labour issues, and particularly problems of illegal work, are growing steadily more complex.

The reform’s focus on creating a more collective organisation is a profound challenge to its current basis as an independent body whose inspectors have had, until now, very substantial freedom of manoeuvre and a considerable degree of discretion.

Nevertheless, in addition to the harmonisation of practices, inspectors are also being given powers to help make them more efficient by allowing them to penalise non-compliance much more quickly than before.

Frédéric Turlan, IR Share

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