France telecom suicides

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MARCO WERMAN: I'm Marco Werman. This is the World. The second in command at France Telecom quit his job today amid mounting criticism of management. It was a less tragic exit than a couple of dozen other employees of the company have made during the past 18 months. They killed themselves. The latest suicide came last week. That's when a 51-year-old man jumped off a bridge onto a highway. He left a note that blamed the atmosphere at his workplace. Unions have said that atmosphere has been poisoned by the restructuring of France Telecom. Here's the World's Gerry Hadden with details.

GERRY HADDEN: Workers at France Telecom have been complaining for years about what they call the inhumane transformation of a state-owned company. Of late they've been holding street protests to press their case.

UNION WORKER: [speaking in French].

HADDEN: One worker complained he was being forced to learn new computer programs. "There's more pressure," he added. "You're constantly having to pick up the pace."
France Telecom was a public institution until 1997. Then it began to privatize. That's meant adapting to new technologies, trimming the workforce, and relocating employees. All of this to make the company competitive in an open market. But then came the suicides, 24 in a year and a half. One employee jumped from her Telecom office window this summer. Another stabbed himself in a meeting. After that, France Telecom CEO Didier Lombard pledged action.

DIDIER LOMBARD: [speaking in French]

HADDEN: He said, "I think what is most urgent is to stop the contagion which is now underway, this infernal spiral of suicides. The French government which owns a minority stake in the company, has also stepped in. French Labor Minister Xavier Darcos has unveiled measures to reduce workers' stress.

XAVIER DARCOS: [speaking in French].

HADDEN: He said, "We will stop all employee transfers until October 31, and set up an anonymous telephone hotline that allows employees to get psychological support." France Telecom unions have welcomed the freeze on relocations, but with the resignation today of the head of France Telecom's operations in France, the question has come up again: how much is the company to blame for these suicides? Max Colchester has been covering the story for The Wall Street Journal in Paris. He says the dramatic nature of some of the deaths has made France Telecom front page news. But he says, statistically speaking, the number of deaths isn't out of the ordinary.

MAX COLCHESTER: It is an absolutely enormous company. There are over a hundred thousand people working there. So as callous as it sounds, 24 out of a hundred thousand is about equivalent to the national average. So I think it's important not to take this out of context.

HADDEN: And Colchester points out that compared to workers at other big companies in Europe or the US, it would seem that France Telecom workers have it pretty good, at least on the surface.

COLCHESTER: They have cradle to grave jobs. The French state system's very generous. France Telecom is very generous. If you leave France Telecom, to develop your own company, you can get subsidies from the company, and if that doesn't work out, the company can then have an obligation to re-hire you back into its midst. So you'd wonder what sort of pressure these people are under.

HADDEN: Then again, he says, these people are radically changing the way they work. Many have gone from repairing old fashioned telephones to selling mobile phone contracts from cut-throat call centers. But one phone company worker in Spain believes what's been most demoralizing in France are the relocations. This employee works at Telefonica, Spain's largest phone company. She says the company went through privatization at about the same time as France Telecom, but without the suicides. The employee would not give her name and asked that her voice be altered for fear of getting fired.

SPANISH WORKER: [speaking Spanish].

HADDEN: She says, "We had to become more productive too, but in our labor contract there's one thing that management cannot touch, and that's our right not to be relocated. If they try to make us move we can take them to court, so in that sense we're protected." France Telecom's moratorium on relocations expires at the end of this month. Top executives say restructuring must continue if they hope to stay competitive. For the World, I'm Gerry Hadden.