Tricky one this: suicides at France Telecom. It might be better read on whilst listening to the theme tune to M.A.S.H. Martyn Warwick reports.
Let's begin by putting things in perspective. Even today, in what for many French workers remains the scary new world of privatisation and competition, the country's incumbent operator, France Telecom, still employs upwards of 102,000 people.
Over the past year and a half, 23 FT workers have committed suicide. Every one was an individual and familial tragedy but given the sheer size of the workforce the number of deaths falls well within the bell-curve of the "normal" distribution of suicide statistics.
Nonetheless, FT's trades unions insist that the number of suicides at the carrier is a direct result of what they describe as the "mass re-organisation" of the company that has seen 10,000 workers (that's just under 10 per cent of the total employees) compulsorily transferred to other jobs in other departments over the past three years.
It is worth noting that these 10,000 staff were not made redundant and thrown out of work. they were kept on in France Telecom in other posts. Nonetheless, Didier Lombard, FT's CEO, has now been summoned to meet the Labour Minister, Xavier Darcos, to explain why more than a score of employees have chosen to take their own lives over the past 18 months.
Not only that, but in a direct intervention in the running of what is ostensibly now a "private" company, the Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde, has instructed FT to call an extraordinary meeting of its board of directors "to discuss the suicides."
The Finance Minister says France Telecom needs to send a "very strong message to the personnel" that it is acting to stem the flow of those that are killing themselves. Perhaps the government has some idea how this desirable outcome might be effected, but if it does, it is not letting FT into the secret.
FT's main trades unions, the Force Ouvriere and the Confederatiion Francaise Democratique du Travail (CFTC) have issued a joint statement saying "The spotlight must fall on on the causes of these tragedies and of the growing malaise within the company."
And François Chérèque, the secretary-general of the CDFT, says, "This is a company which has a single goal of making money and inevitably, the employees at France Telecom, who were used to another work relationship with customers, are asked to turn a profit."
What M. Chérèque conveniently chooses to forget is that the earlier "work relationship" was more often than not a Kafka-esque bureaucratic nightmare for FT's subscribers as they battled the vagaries of a Byzantime administration that based its dealings with customers on corporate philosophy of "like it or lump it".
In the past FT was a carrier run very much for the benefit of its employees with the subscriber always coming a poor second to the perceived needs of the organisation.
Now though the boot is slowly but steadily being transferred to the other foot and FT staff are feeling the pinch.
France Telecom was privatised back in 1998 and the process of inevitable change at what was a complacent, inefficient and grossly overstaffed organisation has been taking place much more slowly than was the case at other incumbent telcos in other parts of the world. Some forty thousand jobs have been lost over the past eleven years but more than 100,000 are still in FT's employ and almost all redundancies have been voluntary.
New working practices are gradually being introduced but FT workers have largely been spared the traumatic upheavals that have galvinised telcos in North America, the UK and Australia and New Zealand over the past twenty-five years as technology and economics have forced changes to old-established routines and the status quo ante.
The simple fact of the matter is that new working conditions and practices are necessary. Employees at France Telecom, like their counterparts in BT when it was state-owned organisation, enjoyed Civil Service conditions of employment, utter security and a job for life, often in sinecures. They had little responsibility, a guaranteed pay packet and a fat pension waiting at the end of their dedicted employment. But that was then, and this is now.
FT is definitely more efficient and responsive since it was privatised. The corollary is that staff have to work harder to justify their continued employment. Well, that's life in the capitalist system. It's either that or communism where, as the old Soviet joke goes, "The government pretends to pay us and we pretend to work".
Unsurprisingly, France Telecom refutes the claims that pressure on staff is causing the spate of suicides and points out, with justification, that there are a number of suicides at the organisation every year, just as there are at other large organisations in France and around the globe. It's part and parcel of the human condition.
FT also asks for it to be remembered that, back in 2000, 28 staff killed themselves over the course of the year - but these suicides were not deemed worthy of the attention of the tabloids. It was all Millennium angst back then.
Even so, the telco has agreed to suspend the programme of internal job transfers "for the forseeable future" and to spend big sums on hiring psychologists to "counsel concerned staff" - so the unions have got what they wanted anyway.
En passant, statistics published by the World Health Organisation show that last year France had an annual suicide rate of 26.4 per 100,000 men and 9.2 suicides per 100,000 women.
Now, here's an idea. Perhaps some painfully trendy and politically correct research house can come up with an annual list of the Top Ten Telcos in the World by Staff Suicide. Given working conditions and pressures in some Asian and North american carriers. I'm prepared to wager that France Telecom would be nowhere near the top of the list.
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