You are here

PERSPECTIVE

35 employees kill themselves. Will their bosses go to jail?

France is gripped by the trial featuring the former top executives of France Télécom, who allegedly created humiliating work conditions as a way of downsizing its workforce

BT_20190713_MLHARASS13_3834278.jpg
Ex-France Télécom CEO Didier Lombard arriving at a Paris court for the trial a decade after the wave of suicides by workers who felt trapped and betrayed. Finding alternative jobs in an immobile labour market wasn't easy for them.

Paris

IN their blue blazers and tight haircuts, the ageing men look uncomfortable in the courtroom dock - for good reason: They are accused of harassing employees so relentlessly that workers ended up killing themselves.

The men, all former top executives at France's giant telecom company, wanted to downsize the business by thousands of workers a decade ago. But they couldn't fire most of them. The workers were state employees - employees for life - and therefore protected.

So the executives resolved to make life so unbearable that the workers would leave, prosecutors say. Instead, at least 35 employees - workers' advocates say nearly double that number - committed suicide, feeling trapped, betrayed and despairing of ever finding new work in France's immobile labour market.

sentifi.com

Market voices on:

Today the former top executives of France Télécom - once the national phone company and now one of the nation's biggest private enterprises, Orange - are on trial for "moral harassment". It is the first time that French bosses, caught in the vise of France's strict labour protections, have been prosecuted for systemic harassment that led to worker deaths.

The trial has riveted a country deeply conflicted about capitalism and corporate culture, and may help answer a question that haunts the French as they fitfully modernise their economy: How far can a company go to streamline, shed debt and make money?

If convicted, the ex-executives each face a year in jail and a US$16,800 fine. But even before the trial wraps up on Friday - the verdict is to come sometime later - it has become a landmark in the country's often hostile relations between labour and management.

As President Emmanuel Macron has sought to make France more business-friendly, he has run into a buzz saw of strikes and faced a revolt among yellow-vest protesters who accuse him of being the president of the rich. While many workers complain they struggle to make ends meet, employers say a system of generous social benefits and worker protections makes hiring onerous and stifles job creation.

Lingering tensions

The trial has become a searing demonstration of those lingering tensions.

France Télécom was caught flat-footed by the digital revolution, as fixed-line subscribers dropped away by the thousands. The state ordered the company to go private in 2003, and by 2005, it was more than US$50 million in debt.

Company executives thought they needed to get rid of 22,000 out of the 130,000 workers - a necessity contested by the prosecution - to ensure survival.

Michel Ledoux, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, said: "They were stuck, cornered. The only possibility was to make them leave, one way or another."

Weeks of wrenching testimony about despairing employees who hanged themselves, immolated themselves or threw themselves out of windows, under trains and off bridges and highway overpasses, have suggested that the former executives went very far in "pushing the company into the new century", as corporate strategy dictated.

The executives include the former chief executive officer (CEO) Didier Lombard, his No.2 Louis-Pierre Wenès, the former head of human resources (HR) Olivier Barberot, and four others.

A grim universe of underemployment, marginalisation, miscasting and systematic harassment was established at the huge company, according to testimony at the trial.

The executives "sought the destabilisation of the workers", prosecutor Francoise Benezech said in her summing up last Friday.

Frédérique Guillon, a worker advocate who testified at the trial, said in an interview: "People who had worked outside their whole career were suddenly put in front of a computer. There were people whose work was simply taken away from them."

Among those victims, the youngest was Nicolas Grenouville, 28, who was wearing a company T-shirt when he put an Internet cable around his neck and hanged himself in a garage, Mr Ledoux told the court this week.

Mr Grenouville wrote shortly before his death in August 2009: "I can't stand this job anymore, and France Télécom couldn't care less. All it cares about is money."

An introspective technician used to working alone on the phone lines, and who was praised for his scrupulousness, he was suddenly pitched into a sales job dealing with customers - without being given training, the court heard.

The day before his suicide he had worked a 12-hour day with just one 30-minute break.

Camille Bodivit, 48, had been a planner at the company when suddenly his job description began to shift. He threw himself off a bridge in Brittany in 2009. "Work was everything for him," his partner's lawyer, Juliette Mendès-Ribeiro, told the court.

In one of the trial's most widely reported moments, Noémie Louvradoux, turning to the defendants, said: "You killed my father - why?" Her father, Rémy, set himself on fire in 2011 in front of a France Télécom office near Bordeaux, in despair over successive marginal reassignments.

In their defence, the former executives have cited the intense pressure of a competitive and changing marketplace.

The former CEO Lombard testified: "The company was going under and it didn't even know it. We could have gone about it much more gently if we hadn't had the competition banging on our door."

Unfortunately for him, he was recorded saying in 2007 that he would reach the quota of layoffs "one way or another, by the window or by the door". The window is what a number of the employees chose.

'No lacework here'

Former HR chief Barberot said in 2007: "This isn't going to be lacework here. We're going to put people in front of life's realities."

To the mounting signs of distress, management turned a deaf ear, testimony at the trial suggested.

Noëlle Burgi, a sociologist who worked with the employees during the suicide wave and testified at the trial, said that it was "a process of humiliation". She said: "You were put in an office, underground. There was one guy who was literally kicked out of his office. He didn't understand."

The suicides and testimony made clear that France's chronically high unemployment rate had left many of the workers feeling especially vulnerable. Worker advocate Mr Guillon said: "Before, when there was full employment, if you were unhappy at work, you could tell your boss to go to hell."

But those conditions haven't existed for years in France, where the labour market is stagnant and immobile by American standards, and workers have little culture of moving cross-country for a new job.

It is clear that these France Télécom employees had signed on, expecting to finish their careers at the company. Pascale Abdessamad, a France Télécom worker who also testified, said: "Eighty per cent were there to stay until the end of their professional life."

Most of the employees were deeply dedicated to their work, testimony indicated. A company like France Télécom, iconic in French life for years, was an apparent life-long security blanket. Mr Ledoux, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers, said: "These companies were considered family."

France's executive caste, normally mutually supportive, has been notably silent about the executives on trial, while France's workers have watch the proceedings with special glee, and the courtroom is filled with current and former company employees.

Noel Rich, a France Télécom employee who had come to observe the trial, said: "Even if the penalties are low, it will be a nice stain on their jackets. These are guys who are used to hanging out with ministers. There've been no words of compassion for the little guy." NYTIMES