By Caroline Pailliez and Geert De Clercq
MONTLHERY, France (Reuters) – Bus driver Younes Laggoun worries that spending hours at work breathing the same air as coughing and sneezing passengers could infect him with the coronavirus. Because he works in France, he had a solution: he walked off the job.
For the past week, 27-year-old Laggoun and around 200 drivers for his company have been refusing to get behind the wheels of their buses, against the objections of their employer.
“We’re cheek by jowl with the customers,” said Laggoun. “We’re scared.”
The buses have stayed in the garage, while the drivers spend their shifts in a room at the depot. They receive full pay, benefiting from legislation adopted in the 1980s under Socialist President Francois Mitterrand.
Since the new coronavirus outbreak began, workers around the world have fretted over how they can protect themselves without losing their jobs. People worry too about what compensation they can claim if they fall sick or are ordered to stay at home.
France has some of the most far-reaching worker protections of any developed country. Faced with the virus, workers have been asserting their rights.
Some French teachers have exercised the right to stop work, while the Louvre museum, home to the Mona Lisa, was closed for two days this week after staff said they were not adequately protected from infection.
“We are just at the start,” said Stephane Beal, head of labor law practice at French law firm Fidal. “I would be surprised if we didn’t see workers in other industries exercising their right to walk out too.”
Laggoun said he has a one-year-old daughter who has respiratory problems. “If I bring it back home, I can say goodbye to my daughter,” he said.
Laggoun, a representative for the CFDT trade union, said staff asked managers to put up glass screens around the driver, hand out gloves and masks or make travel free so drivers no longer have to handle cash.
“None of this was done,” he said, adding his employer, transport firm Keolis Meyer, did provide small quantities of alcohol-based hand gel.
Parent company Keolis said those who had walked out represented 0.5% of its drivers and it was passing on health ministry guidelines to help prevent the virus’ spread.
Under French law, an employer cannot fire an employee or dock their pay as long as the staff member gives notice that they are stepping back from their job because of a serious and imminent danger to their health.
A judge ultimately rules on whether the workers have a legitimate concern.
“The health, labor and transport ministries have made clear that at this stage of the coronavirus outbreak, the right to stop work is not justified,” Keolis told Reuters.
Other countries have ratified an international convention enshrining this right, but France appears to be the only country where it is regularly invoked.
In the Oise region north of Paris, where there has been a cluster of virus cases, 40 school teachers walked off the job this week, according to Guillaume Gressier, a representative for the SNUipp-FSU union.
Representatives of workers in Paris’ RATP urban transport system have been in talks with management about the virus. “So far we have not discussed possible walkouts, but the situation could move quickly,” said Frederic Ruiz of the CFE CGG union.