Increasingly dehumanizing work has caused an epidemic of suicides in France.
- Interview by
- Sarah Waters
Earlier this year, a female manager in her fifties who worked for France’s postal service was found hanging in her office building in Seine-Saint-Denis, just northeast of Paris. Although no suicide note was found, the death has been linked to the company’s announcement two days earlier of “Horizon 2020,” the latest in a series of restructuring plans that will transform the status of workers in the company.
Far from being an isolated incident, the tragedy is part of a suicide epidemic at a whole range of large French companies. One such company is French telecommunications giant, France Télécom (rebranded as Orange in 2013), whose especially acute “suicide waves” have coincided with the privatization and restructuring of the company.
Twelve France Télécom employees took their own life in 2008, nineteen in 2009, twenty-seven in 2010, and six in 2011. Despite a new agreement on workplace conditions negotiated with the trade unions, there has been a renewal of suicides recently with eleven cases in 2013 and ten suicides since the beginning of 2014.
Work-related suicides are an international phenomenon, as evidenced by the spate of suicides at Foxconn’s production sites in southern China in 2010 or the phenomenon of karoshi, or death by overwork, in Japan. Yet France stands apart for the sheer number of work-related suicides, the media coverage of these suicides, and the intense legal and political debates that have followed. (With a suicide rate of 14.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, France also has one of the highest rates of suicide in Europe and one that is double that of the UK and three times that of Spain and Italy.)
The connection between an act of suicide and workplace conditions is extremely difficult to establish and is often an outcome of lengthy legal proceedings taken by the family of a victim against a company. But at France Télécom, some individuals left letters that were published in the French press that explicitly blamed their work. Bosses reacted by trying to individualize the causes of suicide, attributing it to a mental or emotional flaw in the person and disassociating it from any links to the workplace.
Critical to the recognition of workplace suicides as a social phenomenon in France has been the role of a new syndicalist structure created in 2007, the Observatory of Stress and Forced Mobility (L’Observatoire du stress et des mobilités forcées). In the face of intense hostility by company bosses and mainstream trade unions, the Observatory succeeded in bringing suicides to public attention, attracting widespread media coverage and pursuing France Télécom bosses before the courts.
Sarah Waters recently spoke with Patrick Ackermann, trade union leader within the leftist Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques (SUD) and one of the founders of the Observatory.
You started working at France Télécom nearly thirty years ago. Can you tell me a little about what it has been like working for this company?
When I joined France Télécom in 1987 as a supervisor on the telephone lines, it was a cutting-edge, dynamic company with a young workforce who were driven by a sense of public service. We believed that we were part of a grand project to deliver fair and equal access to telephone services across the country.
As a public-sector company, we shared a distinctive working culture based on a sense of universal mission, of the general interest, and of egalitarianism. There was a sense of pride and patriotism in what we did and the workforce was marked by a strong sense of solidarity.
Like other telecommunications companies, we faced pressures from the European Union during the 1990s to privatize and open up our capital to financial markets. Because trade unions were very strong at France Télécom and because they resisted privatization, the French government delayed this process until much later than in other European countries.
The privatization of France Télécom began in 1996 when shares were placed on financial markets, although the state retained majority ownership until much later. Employees accepted this partial privatization on the grounds that they would retain their public service status as fonctionnaires, which meant they could keep certain benefits, including job security, and that they couldn’t be legally fired.
After privatization, company bosses engaged in a frenzied acquisition of telecommunications companies outside of France and as a result, the company accumulated massive debts. The dotcom crash led to a dramatic collapse in the value of its shares and created further financial woes for the company.
By 2001, France Télécom was designated as the most indebted company in the world, and Moody’s downgraded its shares to the status of junk bonds. This meant that when Didier Lombard took over as CEO in 2005, he had one overriding objective: to slash costs through massive lay-offs.
Twenty-two thousand jobs were to be shed in two years. Since 80 percent of workers were fonctionnaires and therefore unsackable, management resorted to more insidious psychological tactics to force them to leave the company. They engaged in what might be described as terror tactics that targeted individuals by every means possible.
Some employees received a barrage of e-mails from managers exhorting them to find work elsewhere. Others were forced to change jobs or move to new cities on a continuous basis as managers sought to destabilize their working life. Others were subject to interviews where they were criticized and humiliated in front of others.
Under French law, these methods are defined as harcèlement moral, or psychological harassment.
Can you tell me about the circumstances in which the Observatory was created?
We were aware by this time of a widespread unease and despair amongst many workers across the company. Then the first suicides took place in 2008. The suicide victims came from all echelons and included managers, technicians, call-center operators, and administrators. They included some members of our union.
We appealed to management to respond and to investigate the situation further, but they refused to do so. Most other unions were reluctant to intervene on the question of suicides. We had the idea of setting up a new type of trade-union structure that would monitor suicides, provide clear evidence of what was happening, and use this to confront management.
It was a struggle to get things off the ground — we were isolated, had no resources, and faced huge hostility. Other trade unions thought that it was inappropriate or even crass of us to want to record worker suicides. I think that they completely underestimated the scale of the problem.
At SUD we formed links with another union, CFE-CGC, which is a union for managers and which unusually has a left-wing leaning at France Télécom. We consulted researchers, occupational therapists, psychologists, and sociologists, some of whom joined the Observatory as part of its “scientific council.” We needed independent experts to back up our claims if we wanted to be taken seriously.
Our concern from the outset was not to focus on individual suicide cases, but to look at the underlying causes and to treat this as a generalized social phenomenon.
What did the Observatory do to address the suicide crisis?
We wanted to investigate the causes of the suicides, to accumulate evidence, and to publicize our findings. One of our first initiatives was to launch an online questionnaire to all France Télécom employees that was intended to gauge levels of stress in the workplace.
I called the director of human resources to let him know what we were doing and to ask for his support. Within an hour of this call, the link to the questionnaire on the company’s website was shut down. We then asked employees to complete the questionnaire privately using their own computers at home.
The results were astonishing and gave evidence of dangerous levels of stress amongst employees at France Télécom. Two out of three employees suffered from work-related stress and one out of two wished to leave the company. Of course, management rejected this evidence, arguing that the results were unscientific and they referred us to an earlier staff questionnaire that they had conducted themselves, even though its results were never made publicly available.
But weren’t you also able to use the media and public opinion as a tool in your campaign?
Yes, for every suicide that took place, we contacted the press. At first, it was only tabloids such as Le Parisien or right-wing newspapers such as Le Figaro that were interested. Le Parisien did a two-page feature on one suicide case. They liked the sensationalist aspect of what was going on and took full advantage of this. However, soon the mainstream press and television began to take notice.
In July 2009, there was a well-publicized case of suicide by a fifty-one-year-old, Marseille-based engineer who left a letter that was published in detail in the French press. He was a high-achieving and committed engineer whose working life was rendered dysfunctional by incessant restructuring.
His letter explicitly blamed work as the cause of his actions, stating, “I am killing myself because of my work at France Télécom. It is the sole cause.” He also referred to a “management by terror” and to constant stress in the workplace. The suicide triggered a petition movement and a demonstration by employees in Marseille where he worked. This was followed by a mobilization at national level.
A series of television programmes also covered the suicides, and the French government began to get worried. The minister for work at the time, Xavier Darcos, asked Didier Lombard, CEO of France Télécom, to organize a press conference in a bid to put across the company’s side of the story and to help calm the situation.
It was during this press conference that Lombard made a huge blunder declaring, “This suicide fashion must stop.” Many people were shocked by his insensitivity. He later tried to make out in a rather contrived way that he had used the English word “mode” and not the French word “la mode,” meaning “fashion.”
Why do you think other trade unions found it so difficult to deal with workplace suicides?
The Observatory succeeded in articulating an immense human suffering in the workplace that isn’t necessarily linked to material or physical conditions but to a more deeply-rooted sense of distress. This stemmed from forms of management that subjected the individual to psychological pressures and destroyed his or her relationship to the workplace and to others.
Drudgery is now much more psychological as workers are exhorted to engage their whole selves in the economic goals of the company. Unions found it difficult to address this form of suffering because it is unseen and intangible.
It is difficult to represent this within the conventional language and symbolism of trade-union militancy, which often draws on images of physical strength and masculinity. Some saw the suicides as an individual and medical problem that had nothing to do with union activism.
It is interesting that at France Télécom, many suicide victims had a similar profile: most were male technicians in their fifties who had worked at France Télécom for over thirty years and had been pressured by management to join the “front line” of the company, selling products and services in a call center.
Technicians who had accumulated long years of experience and who held a distinct sense of professional identity were forced to recite words from a script over the phone and to push customers to buy products. In call centers, they were subject to intense surveillance, were punished if they arrived to work a few minutes late, and had to ask permission to use the toilet.
These technicians lost all sense of self-worth, autonomy, and professionalism. Instead of trying to draw on their professional experience, the company sought to erase this and reduce them to talking robots.
To what extent are these suicides a new and extreme form of protest that reflects a collapse of traditional forms of collective mobilization?
At France Télécom, trade unions were considerably weakened during the period of privatization. Management sought to break existing forms of worker solidarity including union membership. Such solidarity was at odds with the company’s vision of becoming a global player with a workforce attuned to changed economic conditions of speed, flexibility, and mobility.
The aim of the policy of forced mobility was not only to push individuals to leave the company, but also to disrupt existing forms of collective relationship. The message was that each worker was alone in the face of management and had to bear personal responsibility for the economic successes or failures of the company. The old culture of solidarity and collective representation had to be done away with.
Suicides often have a social dimension seeking to achieve strategic ends beyond a person’s death. Letters left by individuals may denounce workplace conditions, point the finger at bosses, or appeal for broad social change. In some cases a detailed portfolio of documents has been left to allow others to mount a legal suit against the company. These are objectives more readily associated with social protest.
Did the Observatory succeed in changing things within France Télécom and also on a broader political level?
Yes, in 2010 trade unions and management took part in a series of negotiations to set up a new agreement on working conditions. It was the French government itself that insisted that France Télécom executives engage in these negotiations.
The new working agreement set out principles designed to protect the individual from excessive stress and workplace pressures. These principles were in theory very admirable, but in practice the agreement was never implemented and led to very little by way of concrete changes.
At the national level, the government helped to set up in 2013 a new National Observatory for Suicide, which monitors suicide levels across the country and provides policy recommendations to government.
One of our key successes was to pursue France Télécom bosses before the justice system. At the end of 2009, we made an official complaint against France Télécom and initiated legal action against the company.
As a result Didier Lombard was placed under judicial investigation in relation to eighty suicides and attempted suicides at the company during his period as CEO. Lombard’s deputy and his human relations manager are also in the dock. We will find out what the ruling is on the case next year.
In March 2014, the Observatory placed France Télécom on “serious alert” following ten suicides at the company since the beginning of the year. How do you explain this renewed wave of suicides?
It is important to note first of all that not all of these suicides have been linked to workplace conditions. I would also add that some improvements in the workplace have been made.
Management no longer uses psychological tactics that target the individual. The company now records each case of suicide and communicates it to us after refusing for many years to acknowledge that workplace suicides were taking place at all.
Yet, the company is still pursuing a policy of massive staff cuts that causes despair amongst workers. It is carrying out the largest job cuts by any French company in the last two decades. Economic objectives are still being pursued at the cost of human lives.