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Privatisation, bullying and the France Telecom scandal

THE trial now under way in France over whether telecoms giant Orange and seven of its managers are responsible for “moral harassment” will test the effectiveness of French labour law.

Given the issues – an institutional culture designed to maximise employee anxiety imposed by post-privatisation management intent on restructuring the business – the case is likely to be noteworthy in this country too, where Labour is committed to an overhaul of workplace rights if it is elected.

In French law, moral harassment concerns “repeated acts having as their object or effect a deterioration of an employee’s working conditions likely to (i) infringe his rights or dignity, (ii) alter his physical or mental health, or (iii) compromise his promotion.” Previous convictions have concerned individual employees and their immediate managers.

The horrific wave of suicides that followed France Telecom – as the recently privatised company that would later become Orange was then known – pursuing its president Didier Lombard’s aggressive restructuring programme cannot be ascribed to lower-level individual managers but constitutes the first case before the French courts of a firm being accused of “institutional moral harassment,” workplace bullying written into the structures of the company itself.

Too often when corporations are responsible for violating their employees’ rights top management escape the blame. Whether through poor enforcement of health and safety regulations, intrusive and overbearing micromanagement (increasingly utilising technology to monitor staff) or constant pressure to meet unrealistic targets, proven violations may result in a desultory fine for the firm itself or a rap on the knuckles for lower-level supervisors who are merely playing the role the company expects them to.

Given the stories of workers urinating in bottles because they know their toilet breaks are timed, staff coming in to work when ill because they fear dismissal or reduction of hours if their attendance record suffers and under-seat monitors recording how long staff sit at their desks that we hear from British workplaces, the “excessive and intrusive control” French prosecutors say France Telecom imposed is something we need to equip our own courts to deal with.

Lombard’s hope is that the difficulty of demonstrating his personal connection to any individual suicide will get him off the hook. As with the JD Sports spokesman quoted in today’s Morning Star who argues that ambulance call-outs sometimes have nothing to do with workplace issues, so there is no need to be concerned at the level of ambulance call-outs, Lombard will argue that suicides occurred from a range of unconnected reasons across a large company and he could not possibly have harassed “people he never saw.”

That shouldn’t wash when many of those who took their own lives or attempted to specifically blamed France Telecom and in particular the sudden shift in workplace culture that followed its privatisation and Lombard’s drive to slash jobs by the tens of thousands.

Even if convicted, the penalties available are weak. Lombard could get a year behind bars and a €15,000 fine; he was paid half a million euros a year in post. Orange could be fined €75,000, a paltry sum for a company of its size. But the lessons of the case are basic – and important.

There would never have been an investigation or a prosecution were it not for the trade unions that heard the horror stories from workers direct – one threw himself under a train while on the phone to a union rep – and fought hard for the French authorities to take action.

And the all-out war on employees waged by the company with the conscious aim of forcing them out of their jobs was the result of France Telecom’s privatisation and the decision to boost profits by axing staff. It shows how ruthless private capital will be to get around the labour laws we erect to constrain it. 

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