France Telecom on the defensive over workplace suicides

16th September 2009, Comments 0 comments

Telecom's president pledged on Tuesday to bring a halt to the "infernal spiral" of deaths from workplace suicides at Europe's third biggest telecoms group after crisis talks with the government.

Didier Lombard outlined measures taken over the past months to prevent more staff from taking their own lives, such as setting up a distress line for depressed employees and offering more psychological counselling.

"We need to bring an end to this suicide trend that is shocking to everyone... We must break this infernal spiral," said Lombard at a joint news conference following a meeting with Labour Minister Xavier Darcos.

A France Telecom employee tried to kill herself at her workplace on Monday, just days after a worker threw herself from an office window in Paris.

The firm, which is still 27% state owned, employs 100,000 people in France. 23 members of staff have taken their own lives since February 2008.

France Telecom argues that the number of suicides is no higher than the national average, which was 16 deaths per 100,000 in 2006, according to the INSERM national health research agency.

Lombard said that management was talking with union and personnel representatives on managing workplace stress.

He said all personnel transfers had been frozen until 31 October to "shelter those people" who may be psychologically fragile and upset by changes.

On Monday, staff at a France Telecom customer service agency in the eastern city of Metz found a 53-year-old senior manager unconscious on the floor.

She had apparently taken an overdose of barbiturates after learning that she was to be posted to another part of the country for the third time in a year, CFDT union official Pierre Dubois said.

She was taken to hospital but her condition was not life-threatening.

Unions are demanding a parliamentary inquiry into the wave of suicides, which they blame on stress linked to massive restructuring at the company, involving forced transfers and the introduction of new profit targets.

A 32-year-old woman killed herself by leaping from the fifth-floor window of a France Telecom building in Paris on Friday. Two days earlier, a male worker stabbed himself in the stomach during a meeting.

"I was fed up," Yonnel Dervin, a 49-year-old technician, told AFP at his home in the town of Troyes where he was recovering after five days in hospital.

"I decided to do it when they told me I was good for nothing. The night before, my manager had called me into his office to tell me that I no longer had the skills required for my job and that I had to change."

The French government stepped in over the weekend to press France Telecom to tackle the suicides.

Budget minister Eric Woerth said France Telecom's management "must take very, very seriously this incredible string of suicides in one company."

"The crisis at France Telecom is now a national problem," said the Force Ouvriere and CFTC unions in a joint statement. "Full light must be shed on the causes of these tragedies and of the growing unease within the company."


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