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France Telecom headquarters in Paris (MICHEL EULER)
France Telecom headquarters in Paris (MICHEL EULER)

Unions slam France Télécom over worker suicides Add to ...

Labour unions on Friday accused France Télécom SA of failing to do enough to tackle a spate of staff suicides that they blame on chronic restructuring at the French former state monopoly.

Eighteen workers have committed suicide or attempted to kill themselves since the beginning of 2008, including six this year, according to the company's unions.

On Wednesday, a 48-year-old technician in Troyes, stabbed himself during a staff meeting after being told he was going to have to change jobs in the same city, the company said.

He was being treated for stomach wounds at a local hospital.

France Télécom, which has not released its own figures on suicides, on Thursday announced a temporary halt to relocation and reassignments until the end of October. It pledged to hire 100 extra human resources staff to spot workers in trouble.

Unions said workers needed more to cope with changes that have gripped France Télécom since it went from being a government agency, where many had a job for life, to a publicly traded firm with profit targets and intense competition.

"The management has taken urgent measures but the fundamental problems haven't been resolved," Philippe Meric from France's second-largest union, the CGT, told Reuters.

"After years of restructuring, layoffs, and change some people just can't take it any more."

France Télécom says it is doing everything it can to address the problem, but says the suicides are at a normal level for a company of its size and that they are not growing.

Human resources chief Olivier Barberot told Le Monde newspaper it was "too simplistic" to link the suicides solely to working conditions, but acknowledged some workers had "anxiety and malaise" because of changes in the company's culture.

France Télécom is the second company in as many years to face accusations that it is pushing its employees to the brink.

In 2007, after three workers at Renault SA's design centre took their own lives, unions blamed working conditions.

France has among the highest suicide rates in Europe, affecting 17.8 people per 100,000 a year, according to the World Health Organization. France Télécom has 102,000 staff in France.

Efforts to put a human face on market forces are a recurring political theme in France, with President Nicolas Sarkozy promising soon after being elected to "moralize" capitalism.

France Télécom was privatized in the 1990s but two thirds of its French staff have civil-servant status and cannot be fired.

Still, these workers, many of whom are in their 40s and 50s, are often asked to switch jobs or move to new cities as France Télécom seeks to adapt to new technology and competition.

"Engineers who spent 20 years doing repairs to phone lines are being reassigned to work in call centres and some of them struggle with the change," Monique Fraysse-Guigline, an in-house doctor at France Télécom, told Reuters.

She sees workers with depression, anxiety, and other disorders, but has not had a suicide among those she treats in Grenoble in the French Alps. "I find it deeply troubling," said Dr. Fraysse-Guigline. "It can't go on like this."

In July, a worker in Marseille blamed his job for his decision to end his life, according to the text of a suicide note published by a union with the permission of his family.

"Overwork, stress, absence of training and total disorganization in the company. I'm a wreck, it's better to end it all," the note said, according to the union's text.

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