The widely reported rumors that France decided to ban employees from answering work emails after 6 p.m. are just that—rumors.
The flurry of misreporting and outrage over French labor practices began with an article published Wednesday in the Guardian. “Employers’ federations and unions have signed a new, legally binding labour agreement that will require staff to switch off their phones after 6 p.m.,” it stated. “Under the deal, which affects a million employees in the technology and consultancy… employees will also have to resist the temptation to look at work-related material on their computers or smartphones.”
In actuality, this was a gross exaggeration—and it seems like the real details quite literally got lost in translation. The deal cited by the Guardian is not a formal law, nor did it affect a million employees. It did not even specify a time at which employees need to cease exchanging work emails. According to our colleagues at Slate.fr, the Guardian writer “seemed to have trouble distinguishing between French and Italian.”
Here’s what really happened. Last week, two groups of employers signed an agreement with French unions outlining certain workers’ “obligation to disconnect.” The agreement followed several months of negotiation and serves as an update to one from 1999 that established the 35-hour workweek, among other things.
This “obligation to disconnect,” a vague-sounding phrase if we’ve ever heard one, would apply not to the 1 million people the companies involved represent, but to the roughly 25 percent of independent workers they employ. Unlike typical workers, these “forfait jour” contractors have flexible hours and are not governed by the 35-hour workweek or 10-hour-day limit. So, unlike other workers, they can end up putting in extremely long days. They are not, as the Guardian piece angrily suggests, “sipping sancerre and contemplating at least the second half of a cinq à sept” before clocking out.
From the looks of it, the “obligation to disconnect” defined in the agreement is basically an acknowledgement that these independent workers have a right to a solid chunk of time off every day. “The agreement guarantees them a minimum daily rest period of 11 hours, which is to say that they can work legally up to 13 hours per day,” Slate.fr writes. “Not really a day that ends at 6 p.m.—unless it starts at 5 in the morning.”
We can only guess the Guardian got their unplug-by-6 p.m. number from guestimating that most French workers follow some sort of 10-to-6-with-an-hour-for-lunch schedule for their 35-hour week. Of course, that’s irrelevant, since the category of workers this agreement applies to don’t fall under those rules.
It’s also extremely unclear how or if this agreement is enforceable. The deal explains that employers will “take steps to ensure the possibility that the worker will be able to disconnect long-distance communication devices in his or her possession,” but doesn’t say how that will happen. The main point seems to be that workers have a “reasonable” workday length and workload, and that employers help them achieve that.
In other words, this isn’t another absurd French labor law—it’s not even a law—and employees will most definitely not be legally banned from checking their work accounts after hours. The goal of the agreement is something much, much simpler: to help independent workers at these companies avoid burnout.
L.V. Anderson is a Slate assistant editor. She edits Slate’s food and drink sections and writes Brow Beat’s recipe column, You’re Doing It Wrong. Follow her on Twitter.
Alison Griswold is a Slate staff writer covering business and economics.
Abby McIntyre is a copy editor for Slate.