The Covid-19 health crisis caused France to bring in its first national lockdown on 17 March 2020. This in turn led to telework becoming the norm for those able to do so – in the case of France, 34% of the national workforce. The rapid rise in the number of infections in Europe forced the French government to bring in a new lockdown on 28 October 2020.

In this context, the Ministry of Labour has updated the national OSH protocol to take account of Covid-19

One of the measures most discussed in the media is telework, a form of working that is now the rule for all activities allowing such. In the face of the reticence of certain companies to allow their employees to work from home, Minister of Labour Elisabeth Borne has been forced to speak out in public, stating that “employers are under an obligation to ensure the health and safety of their employees. The rules set forth in the protocol represent a direct translation of this obligation, i.e. employers must abide by them”.

Refusing to allow telework when it is possible is thus considered as an employer’s breach of his obligation to protect his employees, making him liable to civil or criminal penalties. The French  minister encourages employees to contribute to enforcing these rules by insisting on the possible recourse to labour inspectorates.

The current position of the French government shows the importance of employers’ responsibility for the health and safety of their workers. With Covid-19 acknowledged as an occupational risk, the protocol calls on employers to apply general protection principles.

“The obligation to allow telework in the context of an employer’s prevention duties illustrates the importance of comprehensive collective prevention going beyond preventive measures and involving the whole reorganisation of work”, added Laurent Vogel, senior researcher at ETUI . The French government’s highlighting of the link between reorganising work to prevent Covid-19 risks and general prevention principles (rooted at European level in Directive 89/391/EEC) could also apply to other EU Member States facing similar health situations.

It should also not be forgotten that working conditions at home may also constitute physical and psychological risks for employees’ health. Based on a survey, the UGICT-CGT, the French union for engineers and managers, found that telework in the first lockdown involved “a worrying cocktail of psychosocial risks”. The current national-level negotiations between the social partners on regulating telework – not just in lockdown periods – are due to end on 23 November 2020.