An amendment to the Syntec National Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) – the Bureau d’Etudes Techniques, Cabinets d’ingénieurs-conseils et Sociétés de Conseil – signed on 1st April 2014 received a lot of publicity in the UK, even more than in France.  See our earlier post  

The foreign press has made a big deal out of this amendment. It was variously reported that the agreement “involved a million French employees”, that working after 6pm “had become illegal” and that French employees were now “forced to switch off their phone” after this time, etc.   A great story, spoilt only slightly by the fact that none of it is true.  

The amendment on 1st April 2014 aims to amend the Syntec CBA into line with the French Supreme Court’s recent rulings.  The judges consider that the existing provisions of the Syntec CBA do not ensure the protection of employees’ health and safety because they do not ensure a reasonable workload or safe limits on working time. This ruling has led to an abundance of litigation. Employees have challenged the validity of their own agreement to the working days system and have claimed payment for any overtime performed by them in the past.  This often amounts to tens or even hundreds of thousands of euros. It was therefore urgent that the industry negotiated a new national agreement to restore legal certainty at the earliest opportunity.  

However, contrary to all the international press reports, this revised text has only very limited scope and content. First, the amendment only applies to executive-level employees (cadres autonomes) working under an annual working days system.  These executives are autonomous in the execution of their work and in the organisation of their working time. This annual working days system can therefore be justified by the nature of their duties and the extent of their responsibilities. In any event, this amendment is, for the time being, only applicable to companies which are members of employers’ organisations which have signed up to this amendment, which is far from all of them.   

The amendment makes no reference to forcing employees out of the office or to switch off their phone, tablets and laptops after 6pm. This might be a measure for an employer to consider (one among many) as a way of maintaining a decent work: life balance, but it is certainly not an obligation.  A French organisation allowing or sometimes requiring employees to look at emails after 6pm is not thereby in legal trouble.  The amendment is intended merely to help compliance with the minimum weekly and daily rest time provided by the French Labour Code (11 consecutive hours between two working days and 35 consecutive hours of weekly rest). This logically implies (but does not make express) that employees might “disconnect” over those periods. The application of these provisions is currently vague but a degree of flexibility will inevitably be left to companies to respond as they see fit.  

This agreement is in line with the Charter of 15 Commitments for Work-life Balance implemented by the Ministry of Women’s Rights last December by 16 major companies and organisations.   This Charter aims to develop best practices for work-life balance within French companies and to promote a management culture more respectful of the private life of all employees.  It includes provisions to preserve reasonable hours of work by limiting meetings after 6pm and the sending (not reading) of mails and requests beyond working hours and during the weekends.  

However, companies are not only free to decide whether they sign this Charter or not, but even having signed, they can still adapt its principles and provisions to their own business/activities.  One could easily anticipate situations where an employee’s childcare commitments, for example, compelled an early exit from work for school-run duties.   That would be easier for both the employee and the employer if the employee could pick up his/her emails again once the child was safely home, even if this were after 6pm.