Last week, a caricaturing report of a French ban on work-related emails sent after 6:00 p.m. and communications percolated through the blogosphere, having originated from a prominent news site. Once I finished reading this Fast Company article, which surfaced on my Facebook news feed, I was ready to whip up an excoriating response about how this was a glaring violation of the freedom of contract between employers and employees.
According to the writer, unions and employer’s federations signed a legally-binding agreement, requiring staff to discontinue work-related communications after 6 p.m. The article also originally noted that this agreement would apply to millions of workers in the consultancy and tech sectors.
The new agreement, which was settled by “a patronal union and two workers unions,” only applies to a segment of French workforce (i.e. a small percentage of white-collar, daily-contract workers who are not covered by the 35-hours per week rule) and grants the relevant companies much latitude in how they will enforce the new agreement. It is not a legally-binding agreement (for once, Slate has written something informative). It is specifically designed to protect this segment of French workers from tech-enabled encroachments on their time-off, such as responding to work-related e-mails or phone calls after the workday ends. They do not have to fear any reprisals if they do not.
Again, not a legal ban—but it would not have been entirely out-of-character. And no, it would not have been a good idea— not even figuratively (looking at you, Caitlin Dewey).
There is a question that remains pertinent, though: why can’t we be more like France, with its uber, worker and leisure-friendly policies (e.g. the 35-hour work week, 5-week vacations—with some exceptions made)? To which I answer: we should not—at least not in the realm of public policy.
Such things should not be dealt with via any meddling from the government—state or federal—but philosophically or with socio-cultural inertia, such as the Slow Movement. Maybe, just maybe, some employers will do something about workaholism and time-poverty (like Volkswagen in 2011). But just because the cultural shift does not seem to be happening soon enough, there is no need to hasten it for and foist it upon everyone with legislation.
Rearrange your own priorities without whining about America’s money-rich, but time-poor culture (white-collar problems…some people are time-poor and money-poor). If that promotion (or your job) is not worth intermittently punctuating your quiet dinners with work emails and phone calls, then scale back (accepting the consequences, of course).
Covet the French antidote to time-poverty all you want. But if you advocate for a 35-hour work week, an actual, legislative restriction on work-related correspondence, mandatory vacations, or anything involving a top-down maximization of leisure, you are effectively trying to deprive others of the choice to prioritize their time and projects as they deem fit.
If a 15-hour workday is my raison d’etre, let it be. The restriction on weekly hours can be a little more palatable if exemptions remain an alternative—I acknowledge that some or most of those who advocate for restrictions on work hours, for example, may be in favor of exemptions. French workers can sign a contract to exempt themselves from the 35-hours per week limit. But I rather not have any such restrictions at all. Instead, allow employers and employees more latitude to negotiate the terms of employment and promotions.
Again, we should not aspire to be France, even though French workers are among the most productive in the world- alongside having sundry benefits that come with a hefty, 3200-page labor code. Heck, all sorts of consequences and desired effects are offered as justifications for this legislation and that prospective legislation, at the expense of choice. Maximize the freedom to make and negotiate contracts instead of enacting the same template for almost everyone.
Higher productivity or extra leisure is not everyone’s raison d’etre. But feel free to pursue that “time-rich,” leisure-saturated life that you covet- without asking legislators to make that happen for you.