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06.05.2019 Europe

France Telecom On Trial Over Staff Suicides

Reuters/Charles Platiau
MAY 6, 2019 EUROPE

The French telecommunications giant goes to trial on charges of “moral harassment” on Monday, over a wave of suicides in which 35 employees took their own lives in 2008 and 2009.

The trial opens at the Paris criminal court nearly seven years after former CEO Didier Lombard and the company first faced historic charges of workplace harassment.

Two former senior executives are also facing harassment charges and other former staff are facing charges of complicity.

Businesses, unions and workforce analysts are expected to closely watch the trial, which could end in a conviction for institutional psychological harassment.

Despite having some of the world's strongest labour laws, France has seen increasing workplace depression, long-term illness, burnout and suicide in recent years.

Suicides came at time of restructuring

France Telecom underwent major restructuring and job losses after it was privatised in 2004. The company was renamed Orange in 2013.

The 35 suicides include that of a 51-year-old technical from Marseille who killed herself in July 2008, leaving a suicide note accusing bosses of “management by terror”.

Two months later, colleagues watched a 32-year-old woman jump out of the window of her Paris office.

Prosecutors say the company, including Lombard, introduced a policy of unsettling employees in order to induce them to quit.

Investigators accuse the former CEO of implementing “a corporate policy aimed at undermining the employees by creating a professional climate which provoked anxiety” in a summary of charges seen by AFP agency.

The investigation outlined haphazard restructures, forcing people to move around geographically and repeatedly pushing incentives for them to resign.

Former CEO spoke of 'suicide fad'

Unions and management accept that 35 France Telecom employees took their own lives between 2008 and 2009 and that Lombard stepped down as a result of the deaths.

Lombard, who ran the company between 2005 and 2010, recognised he had committed “an enormous gaffe” when he spoke of a “suicide fad” at the company.

Also on trial are Lombard's former number two Louis-Pierre Wenes, human resources director Olivier Barberot and another four facing charges of complicity.

If convicted, they could face a year behind bars and a 15,000-euro fine.

The company could face a 75,000-euro fine if found guilty of “moral harassment”, which is defined as “frequently repeated acts whose aim or effect is the degradation of working conditions”.

Sebastian Crozier, head of the CFE-CGC union representing workers at Orange, said the trial was about the use of “social violence as a method of management”.

With The Wires