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French justice ministry bends the law to hire 40,500 temporary staff

Loic Venance, AFP | Photo of the interior of the justice ministry in Paris

One out of three French workers has worked under the table to circumvent the country's rigid labour laws, media reports say. But as shocking as this statistic may be, it is even more so when the offending employer is the ministry of justice.

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Whether seeking to boost their monthly income, supplement meagre retirement payments or merely pay for life’s little extras, one in three French citizens have worked under the table, Le Parisien reported last year, a considerable increase from only 13% five years before.

An inter-ministerial investigation now under way has found that the justice ministry is among several governmental departments bending France’s notoriously rigid labour laws in its hiring practices because they lack the financial resources to cover the astronomical social security fees the law requires employers to pay for permanent staff.

As a result, many government departments prefer to classify even their long-term employees as temporary workers. There are some 50,000 of these permanently “temporary” workers in the public sector, with some 40,500 at the justice ministry alone, says France's Inspector-General of Finances, Judicial Services and Social Affairs, according to a report in the satirical Canard Enchaîné paper on Wednesday.

Other offenders include the ministries of health, culture and the environment.

The positions involved include prosecutors’ aides, interpreters, court experts, mediators, social investigators and medical experts. Considered freelance service providers, they are paid by the hour. And they pay no social security fees and have no social protections, says David Dokhan, a lawyer for the workers.

“These are people who work exclusively at the request of the police or the judicial authorities,” Dokhan told Radio France Inter. “This work comprises 100% of their professional activity.”

The practice has been in widespread use for more than 15 years despite several legal complaints having been filed, notably by translators and interpreters, the report says.

“Ultimately, one must question both the consistency and the public image of a justice department which, on the one hand, clearly allows for practices that flout the law but which, on the other, does not countenance breaches of labour law [by others],” it said.

Justice Minister Christiane Taubira has attempted to address this thorny issue, vowing that the situation would be resolved.

"The minister has the will to act and regulate this issue," a deputy justice ministry spokesman told AFP, adding that "a plan of action was decided" that would include the rapid recruitment of 45 permanent interpreters. "A decision is scheduled for early 2016 to clarify the status [of all temporary employees],” he said.

Taubira is not the first serving minister of justice to show a determination to regulate the problem. Her successors Michel Mercier, Michèle Alliot-Marie, Rachida Dati, Pascal Clément and Dominique Perben have all tried – and failed – before her.

Another failure to find a solution is likely to entail a significant financial burden for the state. According to the report, class-action lawsuits filed by workers could cost taxpayers around half a billion euros.

But a solution would also require an increase in the state’s expenses – of between €25.5 million and €49 million a year if the ministry of justice hires its temporary workers as permanent staff.

Any change in the current system would also affect the workers' bottom lines. Their take-home pay is around 30% higher than it would be if they were paying social security payments, the report says.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

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