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French employees win the ‘right to disconnect’

A constant barrage of messages, calls on weekends, or emails in the middle of the night, French employees are finding it increasingly difficult to remain off-duty outside their working hours.

Published: January 1, 2017, 7:09 am

    French employers have exploited smart phones to squeeze extra unpaid work from their employers, just a touch screen away, but a new law may spell the end of that.

    For the first time in the world, an employee will no longer be blamed for not responding to messages or calls outside his or her working hours.

    Companies will be required to guarantee a “right to disconnect” to their employees as from January 1. The new employment law will oblige organisations with more than 50 employees to start negotiations on the right to ignore calls on their smartphones.

    The grey area of digital communication contributing to work hours, have left many employees uncertain of when they can switch off.

    Although digital platforms give employees much more flexibility to work from home or outside the office, the “always-on” work culture has led to employers taking advantage of unpaid overtime.

    “The digital transition has had an impact on the constituent elements of the employment contract, which are the place and time of work and the link of subordination,” Patrick Thiébart of the law firm Jeantet, specializing in labor law, told the French newspaper Libération.

    In an editorial on Friday Liberation welcomed the new law, saying “employees are often judged on their committment to their companies and their availability”.

    The measure was introduced by Labour Minister Myriam El Khomri, after a report in September 2015 warning about the health impact of “info-obesity”.

    “There’s a real expectation that companies will seize on the ‘right to disconnect’ as a protective measure,” said Xavier Zunigo, a French workplace expert, told AFP. “At the same time, workers don’t want to lose the autonomy and flexibility that digital devices give them,” added Zunigo, director of the research group Aristat.

    In a world invaded by new technologies where you can pick up your smartphone at any time, including during your holidays to respond to a client or your supervisor, burnout has increased dramatically in recent years. In France, more than 12 percent of the working population is affected by this syndrome, which is not recognized as a professional disease in its own right, Le Figaro reported.

    The borderline between a private sphere and a professional sphere is increasingly porous: 37 percent of working people use their professional digital tools every day outside of work, according to a recent study. And 62 percent of the workforce, a very large majority of managers, have demanded regulation of the use of digital tools outside of work.

    If a deal cannot be reached, the company must publish a charter that would explicitly outline the demands on and rights of employees out-of-hours. But no sanction will await companies which fail to define it.

    Volkswagen and Daimler in Germany, nuclear power company Areva and insurer Axa in France have already taken steps to limit out-of-hours messaging to reduce burnout among workers.

    Some measures currently in place even include cutting email connections in the evening and weekends or even destroying emails automatically that are sent to employees while they are on holiday, according to AFP.

    Working with colleagues in other time zones, is a however another matter.

    karin@praag.org

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