France Télécom told to explain 23 staff suicides

The French Government has summoned the chief of executive of France Télécom to a crisis meeting today amid claims that workplace stress is responsible a series of suicides at the Gallic telecommunications firm.

With unions blaming the deaths on a malaise caused by restructuring, Didier Lombard will be asked to produce an urgent action plan when he meets Xavier Darcos, the Minister for Work.

The move comes after 23 suicides and 13 attempted suicides amongst France Telecom staff since February 2008.

Concern deepened further today when a manager in a customer service department in Metz in eastern France was found unconscious on the workplace floor after consuming barbitruates in an apparent attempt to take his own life, French radio reported.

The last victim was a 32-year-old employee at Orange, the operator's mobile telephone unit, who threw herself out of a fourth floor window at her office in Paris last week.

Her action came after a meeting to discuss reorganisation of her customer service department - adding weight to union claims that change in the working environment is one of the reasons behind the spate of suicides.

Their fears were fuelled when a 48-year-old technician from Troyes, eastern France, stabbed himself in the stomach during at a meeting at which he was told he would have to take up a new post, also last week. He is recovering in hospital.

Critics said desperation was spreading in company as it pushed ahead with modernisation designed to make it competitive in the international market.

Staff - two-thirds of whom were taken on when the group was a state monopoly and enjoy civil servant status which makes them unsackable - have been asked to overhaul working practices since the arrival of private investors in 1997.

A total of 10,000 have changed jobs in three years alone, for instance.

Monique Fraysse-Guigline, an in-house doctor, said: ''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.''

An employee in Marseille who killed himself in July left a note blaming ''overwork, stress, absence of training and total disorganisation in the company.

''I'm a wreck, it's better to end it all,'' he wrote.

François Chérèque, secretary-general of the Confédération Française Démocratique du Travail, said distress at work was a factor behind the deaths, which he described as ''a call for help''.

With the suicides sparking furious political debate, the company responded yesterday by holding a conference call with all its 20,000 managers in a bid to help them deal with depression amongst subordinates.

A spokesman said they would be told to ''quickly organize local team meetings to explain what happened and what’s being done, and to make sure that if there are problems they can be discussed.''

The group also held a minute's silence in memory of those who have died in the past 18 months.

Last week, Mr Lombard said he would suspend his restructuring programme, create 100 additional posts in human resources and the launch negotiations on workplace stress later this month.

A spokesman tried to calm public fury by pointing out that the suicide rate in the French population as a whole was one of the highest in the developed world, with 17.8 deaths per 100,000 people per year. France Telecom has 102,000 employees in France.

But with the Government retaining a 27 per cent stake in the firm, pressure on Mr Lombard was growing last night.

Christine Largarde, the Finance Minister, said she had told France Télécom to call a board meeting ''as matter of urgency''.

She said directors needed to send out a ''very strong message to the personnel'' that the suicide rate at the former state monopoly was ''being taken into account.''

Observers say the suicides are a tragic illustration of wider anguish in French society caused by the opening up of a state-dominated economy to what are often perceived as the hostile forces of globalisation over the past decade.
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