Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

French government gets involved in France Telecom suicides

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Xavier Darcos, labour minister in the French government, which still owns a 27% stake in France Telecom, met the Chair and Chief Executive of France Telecom on Tuesday this week [most of the links on this page require registration and have limited viewing time] following union-led outcry over a spate of suicides in the company. The company has also been requested by finance minister Christine Lagarde to convene an extraordinary board meeting specifically to discuss the issue.

This follows two suicide attempts last week, one of which was successful, with stress arising from intensified work pressures associated with the restructuring of France Telecom definitely attributed in one of them while the other concerned someone who had been involved in discussions on restructuring services. Furthermore, a 53-year-old senior manager in a France Telecom customer service agency was found unconscious on the floor of her office on Monday this week following an overdose. Her condition is not life threatening but followed news that she was to be posted to another part of the country for the third time in a year. A total of 23 France Telecom employees are known to have committed suicide since February 2008.

The French trade unions have criticised the company for not doing enough to assist staff deal with the stress arising from the restructuring programme, while rallies have also been held. For the Confederation Generale du Travail, Christian Mathorel blamed the crisis on the strategic choices made in the obssessive search for profit, while the Confederation Francaise Democratique du Travail has previously blamed the spate of suicides on the job-cutting management style at the company. Unions are looking for an independent parliamentary commission of inquiry into the deaths.

France Telecom, which denies that suicides are on the increase in the company (although, given that higher numbers of suicides in previous years will have been at a time when its employment levels were much higher, the rate at which suicides are taking place may well be on the increase) has said that the restructuring programme cannot be halted but has, nevertheless, suspended it until the end of October in order to re-evaluate the conditions under which it is taking place. It will also increase medical and social assistance for employees, stepping up its training of managers to help them detect potential suicide cases and introducing a telephone distress line and other psychological counselling measures, and will employ more human resource officers at the local level. It has also noticeably moderated its language following the meeting with the French labour minister, pledging to end the ‘shocking… infernal spiral’ of deaths.

The restructuring of France Telecom, which employs around 100,000 people, is associated with the increasing commercialisation of the company and has been accompanied by 22,000 job losses in the last three years. There have been no compulsory redundancies – all job losses have been achieved through natural attrition – but this has clearly taken a heavy toll on those left behind. This will have a heavy resonance for Connect members and our own 2009 survey on working for BT, the analysis of which is now underway, will be closely examining stress levels and setting them into the context of our previous results on the issue.

[Edited on 16 September to correct some details and add others]

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Written by Calvin

15/09/2009 at 10:26 am

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