French state rail firm called for files on staff who are active on social media

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On April 17th this year, with the rail strike in full swing, a manager at the busiest railway station in Paris, the Gare du Nord, asked colleagues to create a database on workers who were most active on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Unions have condemned the action, saying they fear the firm wants to muzzle staff involved in the industrial action, while lawyers say the move is completely illegal. The state rail company SNCF, meanwhile, dismisses it simply as a “clumsy” local initiative not connected with the strike. Dan Israel reports.

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It is an embarrassing revelation at a period of tension inside France's state-owned railway company SNCF. On Tuesday April 17th, 2018, two weeks after the start of the stop-start rail strikes, a manager at the busy Gare du Nord station in Paris sent a message to “communications representatives” at the organisation. In it the executive asked them to draw up a “list of agents who are active on social networks” with the aim of creating a database. Yet such a request is completely against the law. The revelation will be seen as damaging for the SNCF as it tries to deal with the industrial action, which is still backed by many workers. Friday May 4th was the second day in the seventh round of quick-fire strikes, and attracted support from 17% of rail workers and 63% of drivers.

The message came from the executive in charge of “management support” and “internal information” for the section that includes all SNCF train drivers from the north of the Paris region as well as their supervisors and logistics managers – several hundred people in total. The email said: “To have greater visibility of social networks, we need to build a database of agents from the ETNP [editor's note, the company's locomotive centre for North Paris] who are active on social networks.” The email suggested that the managers in charge of groups of around 15 drivers should list “the names of their agents who are active on social networks” and fill in an attached form.

The controversial email sent by a manager at SNCF calling for a database on workers who are active on social media. The controversial email sent by a manager at SNCF calling for a database on workers who are active on social media.
The information to be put in the forms' boxes included details on the name and role of an employee, their pseudonyms and addresses on Facebook, Twitter and Yammer – the SNCF's internal network – as well as the number of people subscribing to each account and the number of comments written by each employee. A box was provided, too, for each section leader's own comments.

As the news agency AFP has reported, the manager's message fell into the hands of the Sud Rail union, who in a leaflet on May 3rd attacked it as “pathetic” and accused the firm of using “thuggish methods”. The union has no doubt that the email message is aimed at “silencing opposition to the rail pact” - the government's proposals for reforming the railways – and to “slow down the social opposition which is also being expressed via social networks”.

Sud Rail's federal secretary, Bruno Poncet, has personally expressed his anger at the company's behaviour. “This message targets the Gare du Nord where support [for the strike] is very strong, with still more than 60% of workers striking across the whole establishment,” he says. Mediapart itself has reported on several of the assemblies held by the strikers at the Gare du Nord, the capital's busiest station, where workers have stepped up their strike action since April 13th. “The management says it involves listing agents active on the networks but no doubt it won't involve rail workers who take photos of their kids or who chat about the weekend,” says Poncet with irony. “There's no doubt the message targets agents who are active in the mobilisation, including on the internet.”

Following their assembly last Thursday, May 3rd, some strikers went to a demand an explanation from the head of human resources at the Gare du Nord station. Officially, the SNCF talks of a “clumsy local initiative which sought to create a community of agents who are active on social networks with the aim of helping exchange the latest news on the company.”

The company told Mediapart that there was “no direct or indirect link with the strike period or even simply with the rail reforms themselves”. SNCF's director of media relations Loïc Leuliette speaks of a “small controversy that our colleagues at Sud-Rail are trying to start”. He continues: “This exploitation of the tiniest little event, even when it's carried out with the best of intentions, has unfortunately become a regrettable habit.”

Well-intentioned or not, the message sent by the SNCF manager raises a real legal problem. “This email calls for the creation of a file on employees, with an unlawful collection of personal data. This is completely illegal,” says employment lawyer Thierry Vallat, who is currently helping a female employee take the SNCF to an industrial tribunal over a file that had been opened on her previously.

For while an employer does have the right to create a file on its employees, the conditions for doing so are very strict, as made clear by the data protection and freedom body the Commission Nationale Informatique et Libertés (CNIL). First of all the employee must be informed of the creation of any such file, which can only include strictly professional information. The company has to be clear about the aim of the file, who will have access to it and how the information will be kept. The staff concerned must have access to what is written about them.

The CNIL also notes that the information that has been gathered “can only have as its purpose an assessment of one's professional abilities”, as established under article L1222-2 of the employment code. The organisation insists that “the appraisers must refrain from collecting information related to the employees' private lives”, and any file created must be notified to it.

The SNCF social media file initiative seems to have stayed at the project stage. But in November 2016 a document that described some employees in an unfavourable light was found at the Gare Saint-Lazare station in Paris. A few months later the Paris regional transport company RATP was criticised for having sought to create a similar dossier. There are also signs that the practice goes well beyond the transport industry. Mediapart has revealed how public broadcaster France Télévisions kept a file on staff in 2015 and this site has also reported on how the furniture and home appliance chain IKEA has spied on its staff.

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  • The French version of this report can be found here.

English version by Michael Streeter

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