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article imageLandmark case establishes workers’ rights for prisoners in France

By Robert Myles     Feb 9, 2013 in World
Paris - In a historic decision yesterday, a Labour Court in Paris decided a prisoner doing work while in prison has the same employment protection rights as workers in the workforce at large.
Marilyn Moureau, aged 36, had been in custody since July 2010. She had sued the company MKT Societal for whom she carried out work during her jail term as a telesales assistant from August 2010 until April 2011. Her responsibilities involved telephoning customer prospects on behalf of the company. Ms. Moureau was 'déclassée' — declassified — from doing this type of work having made a telephone call during working hours to her sister. She took her case to an employment tribunal on the basis that her ‘de-authorisation’ by MKT Societal was, in fact, a dismissal and has now won her case, reports Le Nouvel Observateur.
In a week when the Magdalene Report was published in Ireland, concerning the operation of the notorious Magdalene Laundries, institutions operated by religious orders with a history of low, unpaid or forced labour by female inmates consigned to them, the decision by a French employment tribunal may have wider implications across Europe.
A Labour Court of Paris — Le conseil des prud'hommes de Paris — ruled that Moureau's ‘declassification’ amounted to unfair dismissal. The court held that Societal MKT was an “employer under specific conditions." As a consequence Moureau received a compensation package with elements for lack of notice, paid holiday entitlement, back pay and failure to comply with fair dismissal procedures. Significantly, she also received a compensatory award of €3000 in damages, reports 20 minutes (Fr).
Prison labour in France
In France, about 17,500 prison inmates, just over a quarter of the prison population, carry out work whilst incarcerated. French prisoners are not subject to France’s labour laws — le code du travail — but are governed by the French penal code. According to Marie Crétenot, a lawyer with the l'Observatoire international des prisons — the International Observatory of Prisons — who was speaking to Le Monde (Fr), unlike workers who haven’t lost their liberty, prisoners carrying out work don’t have an employment contract but sign a ‘contract of engagement’ with prison authorities. Such contracts of engagement grant concessions to private companies, such as, in this case, Societal MKT. Prisoners do not have benefits in case of sickness or accident nor do they pay social contributions for retirement or unemployment. Prisoners have also not been subject to regulated procedures for hiring and firing.
Ms. Crétenot made reference to the level of remuneration paid to prisoners. French law provides for an hourly rate for prison work of between 20% and 45% of the statutory minimum wage. This works out at between €4 and €6 per hour. She highlighted a finding in a 2011 report by France’s public auditor, the Comptroller General, that this bare minimum remains largely unimplemented in French prisons. In the Moureau case, these minima were certainly not met as she was receiving a monthly salary of about €132 for 60 hours work — about €2.20 per hour.
Fabien Araklien, lawyer for Marilyn Moureau hailed the Paris employment tribunal's decision as an historic one. He told Lepoint (Fr), “This is a great day for all prisoners in France and I call upon those in power to address, as a matter of urgency, the question of work done by prisoners. Workers rights (have today) entered our prisons.”
Commenting in L’Express (Fr), Maitre Araklien continued, “My client has been recognised as a common law employee with all the rights that go with it. This decision sets a precedent and with it must end the current regime as it applies to prisoners who are employees.”
France’s Controller General for Prisons, a public official responsible for prison governance, said that the employment tribunal’s decision will probably go to appeal, but he said that did not imply that French prisoners' working conditions should not be improved. The Controller General said it had to be recognised that prison is not just like any other workplace, even at the most basic level concerning safety of detainees. In his view, a different approach might be taken instead of overlaying French prisons with France’s employment laws. His suggestion was that tripartite contracts be considered between prisoner, the prison authorities and the private company offering prison work.
In a domestic context, the right of French prisoners to employment protections when carrying out prison work is likely to be decided by France’s constitutional court but the possibility cannot be ruled out that the question of prisoner worker rights will ultimately end up in the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). If it does then there will be implications for prison populations right across Europe.
More about french law, Prisons, prison work, workers in jails, Employment rights
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