Principal’s duty of vigilance, duty to give instructions and financial solidarity: know your obligations

Whether you are an individual or a legal entity, if you are a principal and use contracting partners (subcontractors, service providers, freelancers, etc.), a number of obligations apply to you and non-compliance exposes you to significant financial risks.

Duty of vigilance

This duty of vigilance covers the principal’s obligations with regard to illegal employment and employment of foreign workers.

In this context, the French Labour Code provides that any person who enters into a contract for an obligation amounting to at least equal to €5,000 (excl. VAT) with a view to the performance of work, provision of services or performance of commercial activities must ensure that the contracting partner fulfils social security and tax filing obligations. This duty derives from Articles L.8222-1 and R.8222-1 of the  French Labour Code.

This obligation to ensure that the subcontractor or service provider carries out its activities in accordance with French labour law is generally referred to as a "duty of vigilance". 

It is valid from the conclusion of the contract and every six months until the end of performance of the contract, which means that these documents must be sent at the beginning of the contract and then at least every six months.

Specifically, the duty of vigilance entails the obligation to carry out certain mandatory formalities before commencing a service.

Thus, the principal must ask its contact persons to provide it with:

  • a document confirming registration: certificate of company registration (K-bis), a card justifying registration in the Trade Register, quotation, advertising document or professional correspondence provided that certain information is stated (company name, address, registration number in the Trade and Companies Register or Trade Register or on a professional list or accreditation reference, if necessary);
  • a certificate of vigilance issued by URSSAF stating the number of employees and the total salary payments which the contracting partner reported on the last due date. This document also confirms its compliance with the obligations to report and pay social security contributions.

The certificate of vigilance must be dated less than six months and must then be digitally verified on URSSAF’s website using the identification number shown on the certificate, using the verification module available at the following link:

If you are an individual contracting for your personal needs, only one of these documents is required. (Article D.8222-4 of the French Labour Code)

If you are a legal entity, all these documents must be provided in the event of an URSSAF inspection (Article D.8222-5 of the French Labour Code).

Note : this obligation is strictly assessed and the social security authorities (URSSAF) are not flexible. If the documents are not consistent with each other, if there are differences in information (Court of Cassation, 2nd Employment Division, 11 February 2016, no. 12-21554), or if a document is missing, a penalty will be applied and no other document may replace it (Court of Cassation, 2nd Employment Division,  11 February 2016, no. 14-10614))

If my subcontractor is a foreign company?

The duty of vigilance exists even if the subcontractor is an undertaking established or domiciled abroad. However, the documents that must be produced by the company are adapted.

Note: all of these documents must be in French or translated into French (accompanied by a translation). (Article D.8222-8 of the French Labour Code)

What happens in event of breach of the duty of vigilance?

Contracting partners (subcontractors or service providers, for example) are sometimes subject to an URSSAF inspection to verify compliance with the rules on illegal employment and payment of social security contributions.

In this context, in the event of non-compliance with the duty of vigilance and if the contracting partner is reported for illegal employment, the principal may be held financially liable for the payment of taxes, social security contributions, salaries and other charges, in addition to the reimbursement of public aid received by the principal, including cancelled exemptions and reductions granted to the contracting partner which committed the offence. (Article L.8222-2 of the French Labour Code)

In practice, a letter of observation is sent by URSSAF which informs the principal regarding the implementation of its liability in the scope of financial solidarity. (Article R.133-8-1 of the French Social Security Code)

The penalties do not stop there since URSSAF can also cancel the exemptions and social security contribution reductions applicable to the principal's own employees over the entire period during which illegal employment occurred. (Article L.133-4-5 of the French Social Security Code)

How do you know if your service provider has been reported for illegal employment?

You may ask to be provided with the document that must be drawn up before implementation of financial solidarity called a “report on illegal employment” issued regarding the service provider. If you dispute the adjustment notified to you by URSSAF, it must be sent to you as part of the procedure. (Court of Cassation, 2nd Employment Division, 8 April 2021, no. 19-23728)

The financial solidarity mechanism with a subcontractor which has been reported for illegal employment may in particular be applied to:

  • the contracting partner which breached its duty of vigilance;
  • the contracting partner found liable of knowingly using the services of the perpetrator of the offence of illegal employment;
  • the project owner or principal, which has been notified and has not put an end to the offence.

Duty of vigilance in combating illegal employment of foreign workers

The principal must also ensure that its contracting partner complies with the legal obligation to only employ foreign workers holding a work permit. This obligation derives from Articles L.8254-1D.8254-1D.8254-2 and D.8254-4 of the French Labour Code.

This is more or less the same mechanism as provided above.

In this context, the principal must obtain a sworn statement specifying whether the subcontractor uses foreign workers for the performance of the contract and confirmation that the workers are authorised to work in France. (Article L.8254-1 of the French Labour Code)

On conclusion of the contract and every six months, the list of workers is sent specifying the date of employment, nationality, and type and number of the document constituting a work permit for each employee. (Articles D.8254-2 and D.8254-3 of the French Labour Code)

Article L.8254-2 of the French Labour Code states that the principal who does not comply with its obligations with regard to combating illegal employment is jointly and severally liable with it for payment of:

  • salary payments owed to the employee not authorised to work;
  • severance payments;
  • costs of sending unpaid salary payments to the foreign country;
  • the special contribution to be paid to the French Office for Immigration and Integration (OFII) and the flat-rate contribution representing the cost of repatriation of foreign nationals to their country of origin.

Additional obligations for large companies

Special obligations exist for companies which employ more than 5,000 employees in France or 10,000 employees worldwide. The latter must draw up a vigilance plan including measures to identify risks and prevent breaches of human rights and fundamental freedoms that may result from the activities of the parent company, companies it controls and their suppliers and subcontractors, in France and abroad. (Article L.225-102-4 of the French Labour Code)


Duty of care or duty to give instructions

A principal is informed by URSSAF regarding a subcontractor’s non-compliance with its obligations to declare contributions or prohibition on employment of foreign workers without authorisation. It must also order the subcontractor to promptly put an end to this situation by registered letter with acknowledgement of receipt.

This procedure is laid down in Articles L.8222-6 and  L.8254-2-1 of the French Labour Code, which set out the compulsory steps to be followed by the contracting partner or the principal when it is informed in writing by an inspecting officer of an administrative body regarding its contracting partner’s non-compliance, resulting in illegal employment being established by non-disclosure of salaried employment or work. (Articles L.8221-3 and L.8221-5 of the French Labour Code).

Non-compliance with your duty of vigilance as principal may result in you being held jointly and severally liable to pay your contracting partner's taxes, social security contributions, salaries and other charges, if your contracting partner has used illegal employment.

The same penalties as applicable to non-compliance with the duty of vigilance are provided for in the event of non-compliance with the duty to give instructions.

Duty to give instructions relating to labour law, minimum wage and housing

When the principal is informed that its subcontractor does not comply with the minimum requirements under labour law (rules relating to prohibition of discrimination, exercise of the right to strike, working time, minimum wage, etc.), it is obliged to order the subcontractor in writing to promptly remedy the situation. (Article L.8281-1 of the French Labour Code)

This obligation also exists in the event of non-compliance with the provisions relating to the payment of the legal or contractual minimum wage (Article  L.3245-2 of the French Labour Code) or in the event of providing collective housing with conditions that are incompatible with human dignity (Article L.4231-1 of the French Labour Code).

These three procedures relating to giving instructions are precisely defined by the French Labour Code with specific deadlines that must be observed. Otherwise, the social security authorities (URSSAF or other body) may call into question the principal’s financial solidarity. The principal’s criminal liability may also be implicated with potential fines. (Article R.8282-1 of the French Labour Code)

What happens if I am not the sole principal (if my subcontractor has several customers)? Am I obliged to settle the entire debt?

In the event of multiple principals, the amount claimed by URSSAF may be allocated proportionally:

  • in real terms, if it is possible to determine the exact base evaded to provide the service for each of the principals (based on the number of illegal workers, amount of salary payments made in cash, duration of the offence of illegal employment, reduced or concealed invoices),
  • or as a percentage of the total payroll for the illegal workers or turnover of illegal workers.

The proportional distribution of the amount owed by each joint and several principal is established on the basis of the work or services performed and on the basis of quotations, purchase orders or work orders, invoices and contracts or commercial documents relating to the services performed using illegal employment.

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