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ISSUE 60 page 6

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France Télécom taken to court over wave of suicides

During a restructuring programme between 2006 and 2008 France Télécom, the French-based international telecommunications firm known as Orange in the U.K., cut 22,000 jobs and transferred 10,000 members of staff (see issue 48). Forty-three employees subsequently committed suicide. Now, for the first time in France, a company has been charged collectively with ‘psychological harassment’.

On 5th. July Didier Lombard, Louis-Pierre Wenes and Olivier Barberot were placed under investigation and bailed for sums between €75,000 and €100,000 by a Paris court. On the next day the company they worked for was also charged with ‘hindering the operation of the works council and the committee on health, safety and working conditions’. The charges dated back over four years to the period when they were Chief Executive Officer, General Director and Director of Human Resources respectively, pushing through an ambitious restructuring programme at France Télécom. As a pattern of employees taking their own lives came to light and the government became involved M.Lombard moderated his previous comments about a ‘fashion for suicide’ and workers taking time out to fish for mussels to offer a telephone helpline and more counsellors while accepting the resignation of his deputy, Wenes. However in 2010 he himself was forced to go as the Labour Inspectorate filed a report which criticised the ‘brutality and pressure exerted on workers’ by ‘personnel management methods that had the effect of making employees psychologically vulnerable, and affected both their physical and their mental health’. They added that the management team had been warned by health and safety committees, doctors and unions that permanent restructuring risked the mental health of the workforce. M.Lombard defended the policy in French newspaper Le Monde by insisting that it was necessary for the survival of the company and denying that ‘it could have been the cause of the human tragedies’. Trade unions SUD and CFE-CGC however demanded that the trial reveal the responsibilities of those that put in place a system of psychological harassment at work.
The court will now have to determine if intent can be proved in that the executives were aware of and tolerated a system of management that might have led employees to commit suicide


Recent rulings from the European Court of Justice

Sick and annual leave: the third circumstance
Compulsory Swedish retirement age is lawful
The ECJ has already ruled on the case of workers claiming annual leave when sick (see issue 46) and when employees fall sick before pre-arranged leave (see issue 48), now it has pronounced on the remaining situation: when they become sick during annual leave. Spanish trade union FASGA brought an action against a number of department stores represented by their employers’ association ANGED who did not believe that affected workers should be able to reclaim their interrupted leave at a later date. However the court re-iterated that the purpose of annual leave was different from that of sick leave. The EU Charter of Fundamental Rights enshrines the right to  ‘to rest and enjoy a period of relaxation and leisure’. Having already ruled that a worker who becomes unfit before booked leave is entitled to take that leave at another time the ECJ stated ‘that the point at which the temporary incapacity arose is irrelevant’.
The UK has abolished its compulsory retirement age but Sweden maintains both the right of employees to work until they reach 67 and the right of employers to terminate  their contracts at that age. As a part-timer, a Mr. Hornfeldt had not accrued a pension sufficient to live on by the time he was 67 and sought to overturn this law at the ECJ on the grounds that it constituted age discrimination. Although the law is vague as to its aims the Swedish government contended that it enables young people to get jobs, allows workers to continue past the age at which they receive pensions and prevents sackings on the grounds of advanced age. The court concluded that, as it allows but does not force employers to retire 67-year olds and takes into account that they are eligible for a retirement pension, the Swedish measure pursues legitimate aims to improve the labour market and does not amount to discrimination.

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