(July 2, 2020) On June 4, 2020, a bill intended to create a separate employment status for workers in the gig economy was defeated in the French Senate. This bill, submitted to the Senate on September 11, 2019, aimed to fill a gap in French employment law.
As noted in the commission report drafted by one of the bill’s sponsors, French employment law distinguishes between employees and independent contractors, with the former enjoying substantial protections under the Code du travail (Labor Code), such as guaranteed remuneration, guaranteed periods of rest, the right to engage in collective bargaining, and the right to a social protection. These protections are premised on the idea that employees are in a situation of subordination to their employers, which makes them vulnerable.
Independent workers, by contrast, do not enjoy the same levels of protection on the premise that they are not in a situation of subordination. The rise of online platforms to facilitate new work relationships—the so-called “platform economy” or “gig economy”—has changed the premises upon which the traditional dichotomy between employees and independent workers were founded. According to the sponsors of the Senate bill, the independence of many workers of the gig economy is illusory, as they tend to find themselves in a situation of subordination to the platforms through which they work. The bill therefore sought to remedy this problem by creating a new type of labor contract that would provide most of the protections that salaried employees enjoy while preserving the workers’ autonomy.
The bill aimed to build upon a 2016 law that created a “principle of social responsibility” for platforms, which includes the requirement that they pay for the workers’ insurance against work-related accidents, pay for any professional training that they might require, and respect their workers’ rights to unionize and to go on strike. Judging these guarantees positive but insufficient, the bill proposed to create a new type of labor contract that would apply to the relationships between gig economy workers and the platforms through which they operate. Under the bill, much of the French Labor Code would have become applicable to these labor contracts, nevertheless with certain accommodations. For example, platform workers would be subject to maximum daily and weekly work hours, but would otherwise be free to choose their work schedules. The bill would also have introduced collective bargaining into the relationship between platforms and workers, with yearly negotiations between the platforms and workers’ representatives. Furthermore, gig workers would have access to unemployment insurance and to the general health insurance system. Additionally, the bill would have introduced a right of information and expression regarding the algorithms that determine certain essential aspects of the work relationship.
As per the usual legislative procedure, the bill was first discussed in a commission, and the commission voted against it. The bill was then discussed in a plenary session of the Senate, during which it was again voted down. The bill was supported neither by the government, nor by any of the Senate’s centrist and conservative majority. While all tended to agree that gig workers need more protections, some of the bill’s critics argued that despite a few accommodations for flexibility, it almost turned platform workers into salaried employees, against the preferences of many platform workers. The government and the senatorial majority also expressed opposition to the idea of creating a third category of workers whose status is midway between that of employees and of independent workers. Instead, as at least one senator argued, certain social benefits should be universalized to protect independent contractors as well as salaried employees.
The question of gig workers’ status is bound to return before the Sentate and the other chamber of the French Parliament, the National Assembly. In January 2020, the prime minister created a working group headed by Jean-Yves Frouin, a former judge of the Cour de cassation, France’s highest jurisdiction in civil matters. This working group, referred to as the “mission Frouin” (Frouin Mission), was initially set up to study platform workers’ unequal bargaining power against the online platforms through which they work, but its mission was broadened to include all other problems that these workers face, including working hours, remuneration, training, and social protections. The Frouin Mission’s work was initially scheduled to submit its final report in June 2020, but this date was pushed back to October due to the coronavirus pandemic. Parliamentary discussions on this topic are expected to occur after that.