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April 10, 2010

France Investigates Suicides at Telecommunications Company

by Lisa Bryant

In a first for France, the Paris prosecutor's office has opened a probe into the management practices of French telecommunications giant France Telecom.  The probe follows a wave of worker suicides at the company that has riveted the country.

For some, the wave of suicides at France Telecom reveals the downside of the scramble to stay competitive amid the pressures of globalization and the recent economic downturn.  More than 40 France Telecom employees have taken their lives since 2008. Unions say that includes a dozen suicides this year alone.

The probe by the Paris prosecutor's office follows a court complaint filed by the union Solidaires Unitaires Democratic (SUD).  Union lawyer Jean-Paul Tessionniere blamed working conditions at the company for the suicides.

Tessionniere described France Telecom's management as "pathogenic."  He called the work situation extremely dangerous.  He said all the red lights were blinking, pointing to disaster.

SUD and other critics claim France Telecom used extremely coercive methods to lay off 22,000 workers between 2006 and 2008.  Much of the company has been privatized in recent years, but many workers are civil servants and it is very difficult to lay them off in France.

Tessionniere claims that since it could not fire many workers, France Telecom created miserable working conditions to force them to leave.  In extreme cases, employees took their lives.

A February report by the French labor inspector's office linked 14 France Telecom suicides directly to the company's management practices.

The suicides and apparently difficult working conditions appear in stark contrast to France's reputation of having some of the most generous worker benefits in the world.  While France's famous 35-hour work week is no longer compulsory, many French workers still enjoy what amounts to a seven-hour day, and many have weeks of paid vacations each year.

But a 2005 study by the World Health Organization (WHO) also found France has a higher suicide rate than any other western nation.

France Telecom denies its management practices have led to the suicides.  It has about 102,000 employees and it says its suicide rate is about average for a company its size.

France Telecom lawyer Claudia Chemarin told French television that each suicide will be examined individually.  She said that under no condition can it be claimed there was an organized policy that led to them.

In March, France Telecom's new boss Stephane Richard outlined ways the company planned to improve employee working conditions.

Richard said France Telecom would initiate periodic meetings with the company's health staff and set up new work spaces where employees could gather during their breaks.  He also said that forced transfers of staff, which critics say demoralized workers, would be applied only in exceptional circumstances.

France Telecom is not the only French company grappling with employee suicides.  But because of the numbers of employee deaths and the media attention they have attracted, critics say France Telecom's problems have emerged as a warning story about the downsides of valuing productivity and growth over employee well being.