France Telecom ‘Modernisation’ Led To 19 Suicides

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CGT France Telecom contract workers at Ineos on the picket line

‘A LONG-AWAITED trial began on Monday in Paris, accusing telecom giant Orange and seven former or current managers of moral harassment and related charges,’ said the Solidaires union confederation (SUD PTT).

The union’s statement continued: ‘The company — then called France Telecom — was undergoing job cuts and modernisation efforts a decade ago.

‘This resulted in 19 suicides, 12 suicide attempts and eight cases of serious depression among employees over a three-year span at France’s main telephone and internet company.

‘This month of May 2019, subject to a risk (measured) of delaying procedure to postpone the deadline again, will open the trial of France Telecom and its management from 2007 to 2010.’’

‘Following a hearing of the labour inspectorate which was supported by the federation SUD PTT filing a complaint, the public prosecutor of Paris decides in March 2010 to name two judges of investigation, to look into a tragedy which will undoubtedly resound in French social history.’

The spiral of suicides

‘In 2004, Senator PC Marie-Claude Beaudeau drew the attention of the Minister of the Economy, on the practice of personnel management implemented by France Telecom’s management. She tells him that thousands of testimonials collected by the unions or on the website she had set up, report a significant development of suffering at work at France Telecom, including a strong increase in stress.

‘It also points to the rapid, dramatic and traumatic growth for colleagues, for the moment observed empirically, of suicides involving France Telecom personnel.

‘The analysis of depressive phenomena in the early 2000s was made by the unions, but we must wait for the establishment of the Observatory of Stress and Forced Mobilities in June 2007 for the two union federations to undertake investigations, training of CHSCT elected officials on management ‘‘by stress’’, then to make a census as accurate as possible of suicide attempts or suicides that have shaken the company.

‘This accounting, which will be denounced by the management as a ‘‘macabre accounting’’, begins in 2008. However, if the media stories unleashed in July 2009 around this count, the alerts of unions, doctors and social workers had already highlighted the explosion of reports of stress related to work, restructuring, forced mobility, violent management was raging at the time.

‘Management’s objective was to push employees, most of whom were public servants, out of business ‘‘through the door or window’’ and management ‘‘blindness’’ and ‘‘denial of suffering at work’’ were finally a facade that hid calculated cynicism and arrogant contempt.

‘After the trade union mobilisations and the national media reports, the Minister of Labour, Xavier Darcos, intervenes in October 2009 to demand the directive that the company suspends the ongoing restructuring and opens negotiations … before the end of the year.

‘In March 2010, the SUD PTT federation filed a civil complaint and a criminal complaint against France Télécom and its then management, Didier Lombard, Olivier Barberot and Louis-Pierre Wenes. Because, if we saw well that the crisis of France Telecom begins in the years 2000, it is clear that the setting up of the next plan to eliminate 22,000 jobs between 2006 and 2008 unleashed a national system-wide method of harassment which relied on violent management as a plan.

‘The investigation of the firm of expertise ‘‘Technologia’’ will show how deep the crisis was, how the constant restructuring, the forced relocations were erected in the system to break the collective resistance, until it affected employees in their flesh, until some of them were led towards illness, depression or death.’

The particular reasons for a crisis in Orange

‘In the 1990s, France Telecom remains the last bastion of telecom public services in Europe. We can go back to the great PTT strike of 1974, to see the various governments multiply the attempts to privatise public postal and telecom services.

‘The appetites of the multinationals would finally overcome the resistance of these ‘‘French public services’’, and the status of France Telecom would continue to deteriorate since the ‘‘societisation’’ of 1995, the opening up to private capital in 1996, until its final emergence in 2003 as a limited company with a minority of public shareholders.

‘The left itself would have participated in this roll-out of the telecoms and the bitterness of the employees of France Telecom, very attached to their public company, was palpable after the failures and setbacks of the social mobilisations.

‘Michel Bon, the new CEO, worked to turn this showcase of French Colbertism (Jean Baptiste Colbert, 1619-1984, was minister of Finance under Louis XIV, with a doctrine of state mercantilism applying tentacles everywhere) into a multinational that would play in the international finance arena.

‘Three management axioms are put forward:

  • To quickly reduce civil servants reluctant to change by imposing 40,000 sackings in “end of career leave” from 1996 to 2006 and with the first recruitments of private employees;
  • Rapidly spread restructuring and job changes to turn a technology company into a commercial enterprise;
  • Initiate international share buyback operations to acquire a global size.

‘This management has been so catastrophic that the company will become the most indebted company in the world (?!) With 70 billion euros of debt, a staff disoriented and a company with a loss of confidence.

‘After the removal of Michel Bon, condemned for his mismanagement, a new team is set up in 2002 around Thierry Breton, to reduce the debt and revive the company, mainly on the back of employees.

‘Thierry Breton was called to the Ministry of Economy by the Raffarin Government (2005). It is Didier Lombard, a member of his team from the administration of France Telecom, which takes the dirty work …

‘From then on, the elements are in place so that the tragedy reaches its peak among the staff: feeling of abandonment and treason by the public authorities amongst the employees, loss of the purpose of work in a company whose objectives are now riveted on the stock market, loss of work groups, permanent insecurity of employees subject to often absurd and unattainable targets, dismantling of technical sectors for the benefit of the commercial sectors.

‘Finally, let’s not forget that we have remained in the reserved domain of state management. The feeling of impunity felt and transmitted by the trio of leaders at the head of Orange relied on the total lack of reservations expressed by the state representatives on the Board of Directors of the company who remained silent at the height of the crisis.

‘The maintenance of a two-tier workforce (civil servants and private employees) was also a weapon of social breakdown for a degradation of all rights of employees.

‘This sense of impunity and this denial of historically acquired rights were cascaded down to the ‘‘managers of proximity’’ (middle management) to lead to this unleashing of violence, as if these rogue bosses had rewritten part of the criminal law.’

Globalisation,

multinationals and new management in companies

‘Globalisation has become the norm for large corporations, especially in ‘‘new technologies’’ such as telecoms that are becoming the playground of financial powers.

‘The unbridled search for dividends becomes the rule of business management with adjustment variables such as the compulsory redundancies, the massive outsourcing of operational jobs, a drastic policy of ‘‘cost reduction’’ to generate ‘‘cash flow’’ to maximise of dividends to shareholders … France Telecom Orange was to be no exception and would maintain an exceptional rate of dividend, in defiance of deleveraging, investments and fair wage compensation!

‘Added to this financial management are management methods from across the Atlantic that apply in a very authoritarian and arbitrary way: the corporate world can be repainted in Orange, but there are now the ‘‘strong’’ and the ‘‘weak’’ and the gods of the individual.

‘In 2000, France Telecom/ Orange expands internationally and wins the sell-off of the Polish telecom market with the privatisation of the incumbent Telekomunikacja Polska SA (TPSA). Without any qualms, the redundancy plans follow one another to reduce the workforce of 60,000 jobs in 2000, to 18,000 in 2015!

‘In the telecoms and new technologies sector, it is obvious that the explosion of the profits of multinationals such as GAFA has been detrimental to ‘‘citizens’’ (tax avoidance, global domination, threats to individual liberties, networks of influence and economic and political lobbying …). The domination of these new technological empires is now a threat to employment and social cohesion.

‘Employees of France Telecom / Orange have probably paid the highest price in the dismantling of the public telecoms service, but the political decision to subject this public service to the appetites of finance in the wake of unbridled international competition is also and without a doubt a very hard blow for the whole French society.’

Putting victims’ words at the heart of the trial

‘The Lombard trial will not deal with the full scope of the consequences of the tragedy of France Telecom. As far as we are concerned, we hope that it will be an occasion to resolve the question of the reparation that the victims are entitled to claim. And it is not “just” victims and families bereaved by the death of a loved one.

‘The ‘‘Technologia’’ report highlighted that 25% of the personnel had been subjected to severe stress, that particular populations (call centres, intervention technicians, researchers …) had been particularly subjected to deleterious situations.

‘During the negotiations ‘‘hardship’’ required by the Minister of Labour, we had requested a special negotiation that raises the question of compensation for all these employees exposed in this period. Only a tiny number were treated with early retirement. We hope that, if justice is not able to deal with this issue of reparation, it is the company that must be able to put in place a repair device accessible to all employees who request it.

‘Ten years after the complaint of our union federation, many employees have retired, and some have even died. We want this trial to be the trial of all those anonymous victims who could not be present in the courthouse. We have appealed to witnesses, victims and families of victims to take civil action in this case. In one way or another, we will make their voices heard in this judicial process.

‘All the France Télécom/ Orange union federations found themselves in a complaint against France Telecom and its management at the time, even though they had very divergent opinions during the suicide crisis. It is also the result of our union’s desire to put this legal fight into a unitary dynamic because the issues ahead are important.

‘Beyond the strict case of France Telecom, we are well aware that there is a common issue to this trial. That is why the Union Solidaires filed a civil complaint and we asked the other union federations to solicit their own confederations.

‘Whether justice condemns France Telecom and its former leadership or not will undoubtedly depend on the trade union struggle in companies that are exposed massively to this type of criminal managerial practices. We are still far from a satisfactory legislative framework to deal with the delinquency of employers on these issues of management by stress.

‘Let’s hope at least that this trial can be a first step in this direction.’