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20 Dec, 2019 14:43

Spate of historical employee suicides sees telecom firm Orange fined & ex-CEO sent to prison in landmark case

Spate of historical employee suicides sees telecom firm Orange fined & ex-CEO sent to prison in landmark case

French telecoms company Orange has been found guilty of multiple employee suicides in a case that could open the door for other firms to be charged with “institutionalized moral harassment.”

Multinational firm Orange is France’s first corporation to be tried on such a charge, and the landmark court ruling could set a legal precedent.

A Paris court fined the company €75,000 (more than $83,000) on Friday over 39 cases in the 2000s. They include 19 suicides, 12 suicide attempts and eight cases of serious depression. Other employees’ suicides couldn’t be linked directly and solely with their jobs.

Conflicting media reports suggest various time periods for the peak in suicides as some say it was between 2006 and 2009 while others name a period between 2008 and 2010. Le Figaro also linked the incidents to the “company’s policies between 2007 and 2008.”

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The suicides happened while Orange – formerly known as France Telecom – was making 22,000 people redundant and redeploying 10,000 workers after the state-run company was privatized.

Former CEO Didier Lombard denied wrongdoing, but he was sentenced to prison and fined €15,000. The company also offered compensation to the victims and relatives of the deceased on the last day of the trial. The judge estimated that claims for compensation could so far amount to a total of €2 million ($2.25 million).

Lombard, his right-hand man Louis-Pierre Wenes, and human resources director Olivier Barberot were accused of leading a “policy of destabilization.” All three were jailed for a year, although eight months were suspended.

For two and a half months, the court heard from victims’ families and showed letters on a big screen.

One read: “I am committing suicide because of my work at France Telecom, it’s the only cause.” According to union records, one employee stabbed himself in the stomach during a staff meeting and one woman threw herself out of a window.

Another woman tried to kill herself on learning that she was about to be transferred for the third time in a year.

One man, who had four children and worked for the company for more than three decades, died after setting himself on fire in one of the company’s car parks. François Deschamps, of the CFE-CGC Unsa union, suggested that the man had struggled with being made to frequently change jobs and having to sell his house. Management had not replied to the man’s letters of concern, Deschamps said.

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Orange has on several occasions denied it has any systematic plan to harass employees.

However, Lombard admitted in court that he “made a blunder” in 2006 when he said he “wanted employees to leave by the door or by the window.”

He left his job in 2010. On the final day of the trial last July, Wenes said he was “deeply sorry” to “those for whom work was a source of discomfort and suffering.”

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