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WORKING IN FRANCE

How ‘compulsory’ are France’s impending work-from-home rules?

From January, France's recommendations for remote working become compulsory - but what exactly are the rules and how strictly are the 'obligatory' days monitored?

Generic shot of someone listening to a Zoom meeting on their laptop while working from home
Photo: Loic Venance / AFP

“Recourse to télétravail (remote working) will be made compulsory, I mean compulsory, in all companies and for all employees for whom it is possible,”  Prime Minister Jean Castex announced during a press conference on December 27th.

Previously, the government had called on employers to allow staff to work from home in the run-up to Christmas, but this represents a change in tone from recommendations to rules. 

“The obligation to remote-work three days a week, or even four, when possible, will be included in the national company protocol which will be updated this week, as had been the case during previous periods concerned by remote working obligations,” the Employment Ministry said in a statement, following Castex’s announcement.

The rules

In the current corporate health protocol (pdf), operational since Castex’s earlier encouragement to work from home on December 8th, remote working was strongly recommended – “the target must be two to three days of télétravail per week” , but with this important addition, “subject to the constraints linked to the organisation of work and the situation of the employees”.

It’s likely that, when it is updated, the health protocol will be more strongly worded – as it was in the versions published on October 29, 2020 (pdf), or November 13, 2020 (pdf) – which read: “In the current exceptional circumstances, linked to the threat of the epidemic, [télétravail] must be the rule for all activities which allow it. In this context, working time carried out remotely is increased to 100 percent for employees who can perform all of their tasks remotely. ” 

The rule as stated is a minimum of three day a week working at home, ideally four or more.

This concerns only those whose work can be done remotely, those who work in jobs that require their presence can continue to go to work and there is no suggestion (yet) that workplaces where remote working is impossible (eg cafés) will be shut down.

What does this mean for employers and employees?

Well… It all depends on what your definition of ‘compulsory’ is. Which, it turns out, is not as easy to pin down as simply looking in the dictionary.

Once rules are tightened or loosened, it’s up to businesses to implement them. One of the first questions, obviously, is whether any position can be a work-from-home one.

Some, very clearly, are not jobs that can be done at home. Some, equally clearly, are. But it’s up to the employer and employee to agree whether a particular position is suitable for home working. Sometimes this is a decision between individual bosses and employees; sometimes it is a collective decision.

The accord national interprofessionnel (pdf) from November 26th, 2020, details how an agreement can be reached – from collective agreement or charter, to an amendment to the employment contract, or even a simple email agreement.

But the fact remains that, only a minority of workers can work from home. A survey published by government body the Direction de l’animation de la recherche, des études et des statistiques (Dares) on December 23rd revealed that only 21 percent of employees worked from home for a minimum of one day in November. Only 6 percent worked from home all month.

The same survey, however, revealed that 40 percent of employees worked from home during the lockdown of Spring 2020, indicating that there is some room for manoeuvre.

Enforcement issues

Not all businesses accept the idea of working from home – even where it is feasible. 

Patrick Martin, deputy president of employer federation Mouvement des entreprises de France (Medef), said in reaction to Castex’s announcement of compulsory home working: “Three days of télétravail, if necessary four, it is a lot for many businesses,” that he claimed would have, “major disruptive effects”.

Meanwhile, a study published in September by the General Union of Engineers, Executives and Technicians of the CGT indicated that 98 percent of employees questioned favour partial remote work, but no more than two or three days a week.

Once work from home rules are made compulsory, the question of monitoring compliance with the rules arises. One major problem is the lack of staff to ensure the rules are being followed.

The CGT-TEFP union has also long called for a tightening of the legal framework concerning teleworking, and has criticised the weakness of the penalties incurred.

The Employment Ministry is set to propose an amendment to the bill to include “more dissuasive and rapid administrative sanctions”, following a meeting between officials and unions on Tuesday.

In all cases it is the business that faces sanctions for lack of remote working, not the individual employee.

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COVID-19 ALERT

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.

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