Ryanair and its recruitment agency for cabin crew, Crewlink, are both companies established in Ireland. Between 2009 and 2011, employees of Portuguese, Spanish and Belgian nationality were hired by Ryanair, or by Crewlink then seconded to Ryanair, as cabin crew (air hostesses and stewards).
All the employment contracts were subject to Irish law and contained a jurisdiction clause providing that the Irish courts had jurisdiction. In those contracts, it was stipulated that the work of the employees concerned was regarded as being carried out in Ireland, as it is performed on aircrafts registered in that Member State. Nevertheless, the contracts designated Charleroi airport (Belgium) as the employees’ ‘home base’. The employees concerned started and ended their working day at that airport, and they were contractually required to live less than an hour away.
In 2011, six employees brought proceedings before Belgian courts to obtain various compensation from their employer under Belgian law. Ryanair responded that Belgian courts had no jurisdiction due to the jurisdiction clause in the employment contracts and the nationality of the aircrafts. The Labour Court in Mons (Belgium) decided to ask the ECJ how to interpret the concept of ‘place where the employee habitually carries out his work’ in the (former) Brussels I Regulation, in the specific context of the air navigation sector, and more specifically, whether that concept can be treated in the same way as that of ‘home base’, within the meaning of an EU regulation in the field of civil aviation.
First, the ECJ stresses that the European jurisdiction rules in the Brussels I Regulation aim to protect the weaker party to the employment contract. Those rules enable inter alia an employee to sue his employer before the courts which he regards as closest to his interests, by giving him the option of bringing proceedings before the courts of the Member State in which the employer is domiciled or the courts of the place in which the employee habitually carries out his work. According to the ECJ, this same set of rules prohibits jurisdiction clauses preventing employees from bringing proceedings before the courts with jurisdiction under Brussels I. Ryanair’s jurisdiction clause was considered not enforceable.
Next, the ECJ reiterates its settled case law on the concept of ‘habitual place of employment’. This concept must be interpreted as the place where, or from which, the employee in fact performs the essential part of his duties vis-à-vis his employer. For this purpose, national courts must determine, in particular, in which Member State is situated (i) the place from which the employee carries out his transport-related tasks, (ii) the place where he returns after his tasks, receives instructions concerning his tasks and organises his work, and (iii) the place where his work tools are to be found. As the present case concerns aviation, the place where the aircraft, aboard which the work is habitually performed is stationed, must also be taken into account.
The ECJ then focused on the concept of ‘home base’, a term used in EU civil aviation law. The ECJ points out that it cannot be equated with the concept of ‘habitual place of work’. However, it constitutes a significant indicium for the purposes of determining the place from which the employee habitually performs his work, in cases like these. Finally, nationality of the aircraft is dismissed as being of any relevance at all.
The case will now go back to the Labour Court in Mons. With the criteria developed by the ECJ in mind, it is highly likely that the Belgian court will deem Charleroi to be the habitual place of employment.