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British firm ordered to pay €60,000 by French court for breaching employee’s ‘right to disconnect’ from work

The French wing of British pest control and hygiene giant Rentokil Initial has been ordered to pay a former employee €60,000 (£53,000) because it failed to respect his “right to disconnect” from his phone and computer outside office hours.

The ruling is believed to be the first of its kind since a 2016 law on the right to switch off such electronic devices became effective on January 1 last year in response to the modern-day scourge of compulsive out-of-hours email and message checking.

In its decision dated July 12, France’s Court de Cassation, its Supreme Court, found it unfair for the unnamed ex-employee, a former South West regional director of the company in France, to have to “permanently leave his telephone on…to respond to requests from his subordinates or customers” in case of any problems while not at work.

The ex-employee, dubbed Mr Y, was fired in 2011 and took his ex-employer to the worker’s tribunal, asking for compensation for the extra hours “on call”.

The company did not consider that the ex-director was officially on call while not in the office after hours or on holidays and weekends because there was no stipulation that he needed to remain close to his home to field calls and deal with emergency business.

However, the court ruled that given that his number was provided as one of the directors to call should problems arise, that amounted to him being “on call”, and that he should be paid for his time.
Man consults mobile phone
Overuse of digital devices has been blamed for everything from burnout to sleeplessness Credit: Lauren Hurley/PA

Under the so-called El Khomri law, named after a former French labour minister, companies are obliged to negotiate with employees to agree on their rights to switch off and ways they can reduce the intrusion of work into their private lives.

If a deal cannot be reached, the company must publish a charter that makes explicit the demands on employees out-of-hours, as well as their rights.

The French measure was intended as a response to the so-called “always-on” work culture that has led to a surge in usually unpaid overtime, and in some cases burnout, while also giving employees flexibility to work from outside the office.

Even before the 2016 bill, French law recognised a contractual right to disconnect for employees working from home. With the new law, however, the right to disconnect has been expanded to all employees who use digital and telecommunication tools in their professional life.
disconnect
French companies are required to guarantee a “right to disconnect” to their employees since Jan 1, 2017 Credit: ALAMY

Legal expert Sylvain Niel said that the simple fact of being “connected” outside work hours was enough to be considered “on call”.

“The Supreme Court’s ruling reminds companies that a violation of rest time via a compulsory duty, even digital, is tantamount to being on call and must be compensated,” he told Le Figaro.

Lawyers for the ex-employee declined to comment and a Rentokil representative did not returned calls.

A recent study published by French research group Eleas showed that more than a third of French workers used their devices to do work out of hours every day. Around 60 per cent of workers were in favour of the new law.

Renowned for its 35-hour working week and long holidays, France’s decision to limit being contacted on electronic devices sparked considerable mockery abroad.

However, recent studies suggest that French workers actually put in more hours a year than their supposedly more industrious German counterparts, for example, and their hourly productivity rate is among the world’s highest.

The debate over the right to disconnect is by no means just French.

Some large groups such as Volkswagen and Daimler in Germany have already implemented measures to curtail out-of-hours messaging. These include cutting email connections in the evening and weekends or even destroying emails automatically that are sent to employees while they are on holiday.

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