2016 10 -News From France

Froggy

The Orange Trial

Last month Froggy mentioned the trial of Orange/France Telecom managers. They are accused of ‘moral harassment’, following the suicides of dozens of employees during the years when the company was ‘slimming down’ the ‘human resources’ with modern managerial methods.

The firm Orange sells telephone and internet services in Europe, including Britain (it’s known now as EE), Africa , Vietnam, etc. It used to be called France Telecom, which used to be the state monopoly Poste et Telecommunications.  It was privatised in 2004.  It has changed completely, due to technology and the EU Commission compulsory opening to competition.  In the 1980s and 90s it was a successful state enterprise supplying landline telephones to the French, but also creating and running Minitel, the first internet service in the world. Its employees, engineers and managers, passed a competitive examination to enter the firm, and were sure of a lifelong career as civil servants.

France Telecom/Orange became a private firm, and a world wide supplier of mobile phone services, buying and selling dozens of foreign firms in the process. The privatisation was done according to the EU Commission legislation. In 2006, France Telecom had to ‘open itself to competition’ and other telecommunication firms came on the market in France: Bouygues (specialised in construction and public works) and SFR.

Bouygues and SFR did not have to build their own infrastructure however. They got the use of the existing telephone and internet infrastructure, built by the State and until then the property of the public service. The public service had to offer its network of landlines and mobile connections at a cheap price. The law ensured that France Telecom was not favoured financially by its erstwhile position as a state monopoly, in other words it could not rent the use of its infrastructure at a price that would make its rivals ‘non competitive’. That means, at a price that reflected the sums spent by the state to create this infrastructure. Not only that, but France Telecom had a large workforce, which it was supposed to keep (apparently the government refused a plan for redundancies) whereas the competitors were free to recruit just the right number of young newly trained specialists.

France Telecom was in debt and, according to the CEO at the time, its survival was at stake.

He said in 2012: ‘We had to train our employees to understand and use the new technologies, recruit young talent born in the digital world, and prepare the mass departure of employees recruited in the 1980s, who had ensured a vast improvement of the telephone service at the time.’

An executive meeting was called on 20th October 2006 to set out the targets. Of the 110,000 employees, one in five had to go. The restructuration plan, called ‘NEXT’ aimed at 22,000 fewer jobs, and a programme called ACT was to move 10, 000 more from their job to other jobs. 6,000 younger people were to be recruited. The problem was that 75% of employees were civil servants, and could not be sacked or made redundant.

The situation called for the involvement of the whole workforce, represented by unions, and negotiations conducted with great skill. Instead the skill was deployed in dividing the workforce and applying psychological pressure to force people to leave.

A school was set up in 2005 entirely devoted to teach managers how to reduce the workforce. Then managers were given targets, and figures were compared at weekly meetings, and bonuses given accordingly.

Employees over 55 were offered early retirement, as were mothers of three children who had worked for France Telecom for 15 years. Those who were not contemplating retirement, or those younger than 55, had to be made to leave by other methods.

Mainly they were made to feel that they were no longer valued. Managers imposed unrealisable targets, or withheld work, imposed work below qualifications and experience, offered posts hundreds of miles away, forced employees to reapply for their jobs.  They took away people’s company cars, even their desk. All employees were called for ‘appraisal’ meetings each month (instead of each year), during which leaving was suggested.  Superiors kept diaries of employees’ behaviour, lateness, performance, in order to build cases for dismissal.  A general climate of instability was instituted; managers given bonuses for each departure, and remaining employees kept their heads down.

Firms in France have ‘docteurs du travail’, doctors they employ for their employees. Until the new 2016 Labour Law, each employee was entitled to a yearly medical consultation. France Telecom doctors had spoken out about levels of despair among the employees and not been heard. Some resigned in protest.  Labour inspectors and union representatives complained.  Suicides were reported in the press, leading the CEO to say; “This fashion for suicide, which is very upsetting for everybody, has got to stop.”

The role of the unions.

The role of the unions in this seems to be less than brilliant. For a start, they were divided.  CFDT was the traditional and strong union in the post office and telecommunications.  In 1988 there was a split and SUD (Solidaires Unitaires Democratiques) came about. Then unions were further divided between executive and employee unions. Moreover employees were targeted for removal one by one, which made strike or other action problematic.

Each member of the workforce was terrified of losing their post, or being transferred hundreds of miles away, or made to do demeaning work. And managers had to get rid of staff in order to get their bonus. It seems that the climate was far from solidarity. ‘If someone burst into tears at his desk, his neighbour just moved away’, in the words of one of the witnesses in the pre-trial investigation.

In response to the number of suicides, SUD and another union created an ‘Observatory of stress and forced relocations ‘Observatoire du stress et des mobilités forcées’. This office accumulated files of cases of harassment, which made a contribution to the legal case against the CEO.

The trial

Labour inspectors can investigate suicides linked to work and in some cases refer the case to the public prosecutor [le procureur de la République]. This is what happened in the case of France Telecom. The unions joined in making a complaint. A four year investigation by a judge leading to an 193 page file concluded that there was a case to answer. The then CEO and director of Human Resources have been examined by a judge, and there will be a trial.

Conclusion

The EU Commission bears much more responsibility than the individual manager of the company in these suicides. It is the Commission which imposed this sharing of the wealth, in terms of money, experience and infrastructure, of an old established firm. It gave the managers very little choice.  In fact it was an impossible situation, created by the drive to privatisation and ‘fair and unhindered competition’ demanded by the EU. The unions had a difficult job and did not contribute much. The public accepted the situation. They were appalled by the suicides, and the photos of marks left by a suicide on the wall of a France Telecom building upset everyone.  But there was no boycott of France Telecom or even talk of it.