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THE trial of telecoms giant Orange and seven current and former managers for “moral harassment” and the creation of a bullying culture that sparked a wave of suicides among staff began in Paris today.
The trial is the largest ever for “moral harassment” and breaks new ground in seeking to hold top management to account for suicides, suicide attempts and cases of serious depression among staff they did not know personally.
Thirty-five employees of the firm, then known as France Telecom, took their own lives in 2008 and 2009.
Investigating magistrates have focused on 19 suicides, 12 attempted suicides and eight cases of acute depression among workers.
Prosecutors trace the shift in culture to the firm’s privatisation in 2004.
It was then that bosses, unable to cut jobs as rapidly as they wished because employees were still classed as civil servants and entitled to job security, began to pursue “a policy of unsettling employees in order to induce them to quit.”
The trial begins nearly seven years after France Telecom was first charged following demands for an investigation by the Sud trade union.
Most prominent among the defendants apart from the company itself is its former president Didier Lombard, who prosecutors say enforced “a corporate policy aimed at undermining the employees … by creating a professional climate which provoked anxiety.”
Mr Lombard, who quit in 2010 following an outcry after dismissing the deaths as the result of a “suicide fad,” denies all charges and says the suicides were down to “local difficulties, with no links to each other” and unrelated to the company’s “modernisation” and downsizing project.
His lawyer Jean Veil says it is “surprising” that Mr Lombard could be “suspected of harassment of people he never saw.”
In addition former human resources director Olivier Barberot, former deputy executive director Louis-Pierre Wenes and four other managers face charges.
But evidence includes a suicide note from employee Michel, 50, that slammed “management by terror” and declared: “I’m taking my life because of my work at France Telecom. It’s the only reason.”
A female employee, Christel, slashed her wrists in front of two superiors who had told her she was to be transferred hours before.
A 52-year-old male employee, Herve, told rescuers he was “sick of this job” when coaxed down from an office window he appeared ready to jump from.
The magistrates’ indictment says that to try to hit a target of 22,000 job cuts the company imposed “excessive and intrusive control” on staff, assigned them deliberately demoralising tasks, isolated individuals and used “intimidation manoeuvres or threats and pay cuts.”
Convictions can only carry a year behind bars and a fine of €15,000 (£12,800), though the company could be hit with a larger fine and made to pay compensation to civil parties.
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