Economy & Trade, Europe, Financial Crisis, Headlines, Human Rights, Labour

LABOUR-EUROPE: This Job Is Killing Me

Julio Godoy

PARIS, Oct 16 2009 (IPS) - A spate of suicides in France is raising new questions about precarious working conditions imposed by authoritarian management models.

The suicides coincide with findings by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that free trade policies have led to deteriorating working conditions around the world.

As many as 24 workers with France Telecom, the country’s largest communication company, have taken their lives during the last 18 months. In September alone, four France Telecom workers committed suicide. In all these cases, the victims had said they would kill themselves because of unbearable pressure at work.

They all “worked in sectors of France Telecom that are notorious for their cruel working climate,” Patrice Diochet, union leader at the company told IPS. “There is no place for humanity in the company, only the indexes count here.”

Formerly a state owned company, France Telecom was privatised in 1998. In the ten years that followed, the management eliminated 22,000 jobs, and put in practice a policy of constant job shifting for medium and low-level personnel.

Such labour management has become routine in several major French companies.

Similar cases of suicides have been reported in other French companies over recent months. Several workers at the carmakers Renault and Peugeot have committed suicide over the last couple of years, and left letters to say they were taking their lives because of the working conditions.

David, who was 30, committed suicide in February after writing a letter saying his three job supervisors were “bastards” who would “always put pressure upon workers.”

“The job killed David,” his wife Nathalie told IPS.

According to the World Health Organisation, France has the third highest industrial-related suicide rate in the world, after the U.S. and Ukraine.

The General Confederation of Workers (CGT), France’s largest union, says about 400 people commit suicide in France every year due to job-related difficulties.

At France Telecom, CEO Didier Lombard spoke at first of “a suicide fashion”, and described the deaths as “things that happen.” But political pressure led to dismissal of Lombard’s deputy, Louis Pierre Wenes. Wenes had accused French unions and the press of manipulating and over-dramatising the suicides for political reasons.

France Telecom suspended the job shifting policy as a result of the protests. It also set up fences and rails at its taller buildings to reduce the number of suicides.

Minister for labour Xavier Darcos signed an agreement with unions to promote a national plan against stress at the workplace. Darcos said his ministry would fine companies with more than 1,000 employees that do not apply the plan. A first sanction would be publication of a list of the companies that do not obey the new directives.

Psychologists and union leaders in other European countries also report increased stress at the workplace.

“Suicide because of precarious, stressful working conditions is not an exclusively French phenomenon,” Laurent Vogel, who tracks labour health at the Brussels-based European Trade Union Institute told IPS. “At least 27 percent of workers in the EU consider that their health and safety are at risk because of their work.

“All over Europe there are suicides at the workplace, but they do not appear in the statistics of labour,” Vogel added. “(Admitting) suicide at the job is a taboo, because it would question the steady search for higher productivity and efficiency.”

Germany has no statistics on suicides at the workplace. “But many union members have said to me that suicides at work also occur in Germany,” Dieter Sauer, professor of social sciences at the university of the army in Munich told IPS.

Prof. Michael Schumann from the University of Goettingen, some 400 kilometres west of Berlin, says that “the new labour world is marked by a growing cruelty towards the individual.”

François Desriaux, psychologist and editor of the French monthly Santé et Travail (Health and Labour) says “if modern companies want to really tackle the problem (of suicides caused by labour stress) they do not need to examine the workers – it is the job that needs auscultation.”

New organisation and labour management, whose only parameters are high productivity and efficiency, have led “both workers and companies into a blind alley,” Desriaux tells IPS. “To solve the crisis, it is not enough to limit the damages by trying to heal the most fragile among the workers. The priority must be to redefine the meaning of a job well done, to carry out a revolution of corporate organisation and labour management.”

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