A recent ruling of the Paris Labour Court has drawn a lot of attention from the press. On February 8th 2013 Mrs. Marilyn Moureau, who was working for a call centre, was granted back pay and a ruling that the termination of her contract was an unfair dismissal.

So far, nothing unusual.  However, Mrs. Marilyn Moureau was “not an employee like the others”, as the Labour Court put it. She was sentenced to 8 years custody for having stabbed her violent boyfriend in 2010 and is currently serving it out at the “Maison d’Arrêt” (remand center) in Versailles.

During her time in jail, she worked for a company called MKT Societal as a phone operator. When it realised that she had made some personal calls during work hours, she was dismissed. Mrs. Moureau then sued MKT Societal and claimed for back pay, termination indemnities and damages.

Under French Law, certain prisoners can work during their sentence under conditions set out by decree.  Articles 717-3 and D 103 of the Code of Criminal Procedure clearly provide that work relationships involving prison inmates do not qualify as employment contracts as between the prisoner and the State. Based on these provisions, the Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that a Labour Court cannot order a remand centre to provide back pay and overtime. In that case, the prisoner was claiming that article 717-3 was not compliant with the Constitution as it was leading to unequal treatment between citizens. The Supreme Court provided a brisk reminder that a Labour Court is not competent to assess the compliance of a Law with the Constitution.

However, Mrs. Moureau’s case was different as she did not sue the prison administration (i.e. the State) but the private company for which she worked, MKT Societal.

According to enthusiastic commentators, this ruling is a first step toward the general application of employment law to prisoners.  While there should be a positive State interest in encouraging prisoners to work for its rehabilitation and skills–learning value, whether this general application is compatible with some of the limitations necessarily placed on those in custody is a separate question.

We can barely wait for prisoners to claim, like other employees, for the social and cultural activities offered by the employer’s Works Council, such as organised tours, discounted theatre tickets and fast-lane tickets for museums.

This ruling was rendered in first instance and can still be appealed.  It creates some very significant policy questions and we await any appeal with interest.