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France Telecom employees demonstrate on Tuesday in Marseille against the company's restructuring. (GERARD JULIEN)
France Telecom employees demonstrate on Tuesday in Marseille against the company's restructuring. (GERARD JULIEN)

Workplace

Suicides shake French telecom giant Add to ...

Feeling humiliated at work and slated for a transfer he did not want, Yonnel Derven decided to make a statement that would be impossible for his bosses at France Télécom SA to ignore.

Six weeks ago, he walked into a staff meeting at his office in the eastern French city of Troyes, pulled a knife from his pocket and stabbed himself in the stomach. "I was just fed up," said the 49-year-old technician after being released from a hospital. "They said I was useless and that an intern could do what I do."

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Mr. Derven's gesture was dramatic. But it was not an isolated act at a company that has been restructuring, shedding jobs by the thousands and adjusting to technological change non-stop for years.

A rash of suicides has raised questions about corporate culture at France Télécom, its management structure and the human cost of its top-to-bottom makeover over the past 11 years from state monopoly into global telecommunications giant.

The controversy also parallels rising tensions in the corporate sector worldwide, as relentless job cutting amid the recession has left remaining workers to pick up the slack and afraid their jobs could be next in line.

A few days after Mr. Derven stabbed himself, another worker jumped to her death from a fourth-floor window at a France Télécom office in Paris after learning she would be reporting to a new boss. Not long afterward, yet another company employee in western France hanged himself, reportedly after learning he was passed over for a promotion.

Over the past 20 months, 25 employees of the company have taken their own lives. Several others, including one woman who swallowed an overdose of barbiturates last month during her lunch break, were rescued after they tried to kill themselves.

France Télécom's top executives initially said the latest cluster of suicides could not be attributed to problems with they way they organize the workplace, and that the rate of suicide was no higher than the national rate.

Their language changed with the unusual intervention last month of the French government, which still holds a 27-per-cent stake in the company. Labour Minister Xavier Darcos, saying that French companies too often shift the blame for workplace stress onto their employees, all but ordered the company's chief executives to get out of their offices and go out in the field to hear employee complaints face-to-face.

Didier Lombard, the telecom's chief executive officer, has since jettisoned his deputy, suspended the planned closing of one provincial office and put a freeze on all involuntary employee transfers until at least the end of the year. Also suspended was the practice of posting the names of workers and their performance scores.

But it still faces intense competition and market pressure. Thursday, it reported that third-quarter profit slipped by 8 per cent, in line with expectations in the sluggish world economy.

The company now has 186 million customers in 32 countries, and last year reported sales of €54-billion ($85.5-billion). In the past eight years, 60,000 jobs were eliminated at the company. Between 2006 and 2008 alone, more than 22,000 people left. At the same time, its wholesale shift to data, Internet and mobile phone services made a lot of its old job categories obsolete.

Most of the 102,000 employees in France now work in sales and service in call centres scattered around the country.

Those hired before the privatization in 1998 were able to retain their civil service status, which means they cannot be fired at will. But many found that neither their seniority nor their skills counted for much in the fast-evolving business.

They have complained that they are under constant pressure to quit from bosses who assign them to tasks they are not trained to do and transfer them to offices far from home. One distraught worker, in the suicide note he left behind last summer, described the corporate culture as "management by terror."

"Many companies have to deal with major change, and that's normal, but it doesn't usually lead to people's deaths," said Dominique Decèze, the author of La Machine à broyer (The Crushing Machine), a book that blames the suicides on a management obsession with profit and productivity targets.

Employees who started at France Télécom when it was the state phone company have had to deal with culture shock. When they joined it was a place where people started at the bottom, moved up the ladder and expected to stay in the same office with the same co-workers for much of their careers.

"It's not just because the boss pats you on the shoulder or eats with you in the lunchroom that you feel a sense of belonging to a company," Mr. Decèze said. "You had a future. You could advance though the ranks. That's finished now. At France Télécom they destroyed the feeling that you belonged."

Union leaders and in-house medical staff said they have warned the company's headquarters about alarming levels of stress-related illnesses, family problems, absenteeism and accidents for years.

Other French companies have faced similar spates of suicides at facilities that were under particular pressure to increase productivity.

Last year four Peugeot Citroën workers killed themselves in a single 15-day period at the same workshop. The year before, a single Renault plant saw four suicides within four months. Both companies set up hotlines and reorganized operations to give workers the chance to air grievances with supervisors.

France Télécom has started down the same path, and last week sent out questionnaires to every one of its employees asking about their relations with their bosses, working conditions and whether they feel useful. Within 24 hours, 20,000 people had responded.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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