Why is illegal work called ‘travail au noir’?

There are different theories explaining why non-declared work is called working “ au noir” or even “ travail au black” in France

One idea is that it comes from the Middle Ages when the first rules were introduced to control working conditions. At that time, employees were only allowed to work during the day, though it was more profitable for employers if they could continue into the evening by the light

of candles and torches. Thus working au noir was associated with working illegally, dans le noir, in the dark.

As well as protecting workers, this law also protected the consumer because it meant nothing could be hidden from them.

Working by candlelight was also not approved of because it was dangerous due to the risk of fire in houses made largely from wood.

Another explanation was given by a French writer, Claude Duneton, who specialised in explaining the origins of French words and wrote a weekly column, Au plaisir des mots, in Le Figaro for several years up until his death in 2012. He discovered that the term ‘schwarz’, black in German, was used in several expressions in Germany during hard times at the end of the First World War. Schwarzarbeit was used for travail au noir, Schwarzmarkt was the black market and there was even, Schwarzschlachtung which referred to illicit slaughtering of animals.

He believed that Germany was at the origin of the terms that were then used during the Occupation in the Second World War, when food was scarce and people often had to resort to the illegal or black market in France – and this gave rise to the term marché noir and travail au noir.

It may just be that the word black in many languages is associated with elements that are hidden or illegal, as the black market is mercado negro in Spanish, schwarzmarkt in German, mercato nero in Italian.

The official translation of “travail au noir” used in French legislation is travail dissimulé, which includes absence of declarations, pay slips and falsification of working hours. Any employer who is caught employing someone illegally risks up to three years in prison and/or a €45,000 fine. The fine can be multiplied by five if the employer is a company and increased if the work involves someone who is underage.

By its very definition, it is always difficult to know how much illegal work there is in a country but in 2015 the research institute, Credoc, carried out a study for the government which discovered that 3.9% of those interviewed had carried out some illegal work during that year, mostly as a second, part-time job.

A third of the people questioned thought that it was acceptable to “travail au noir” and two thirds of them thought that 20% of the population did some non-declared work. Most illegal work was in the care sector.