Why are so many France Telecom workers dying?

In the past 19 months, 24 workers have committed suicide. Shocking? Not when compared to previous years' totals.

Some of the employees of France Telecom – which operates the "Orange" brand in France – have seen the future. It is black and comfortless. The latest person to come to that view was a 51-year-old father of two employed in an Orange call centre who threw himself from a motorway bridge near Annecy on Monday. His death brought the number of France Telecom employees who have committed suicide in the past 19 months to 24.

Trades union leaders blame the allegedly brutal management culture of a company which has transformed itself over a decade from a ponderous state utility to a leading telecommunications enterprise.

For months, the France Telecom management has dismissed the suicides as a contagious "fad" among its workforce. Its chief executive and president, Didier Lombard, admitted yesterday that he had "made mistakes, which has increased the stress on my employees".

The suicides are disturbing because they are, on one level, a modern plague with implications well beyond France. The number of suicides, especially work-related suicides, has been increasing in almost all developed nations.

The France Telecom victims have mostly been previously well-adjusted people in their 40s and 50s whose familiar working lives have been turned upside down by the triumph of the mobile telephone and the internet. Tens of thousands of France Telecom workers were once needed to deal with physical repair or installation work on land lines. Others dealt with familiar business clients. Frequently, they worked in teams.

The decline of land lines and the transformation of France Telecom into a successful mobile phone and internet provider has abolished the need for many of these jobs. But the employees remain.

Long-standing telecoms workers retain the protected status of French public servants. France Telecom cannot easily make them redundant. Instead, the company, which was spun-off in 1996 and became majority private-owned in 2004, is accused of adopting "bullying" tactics to "encourage" unwanted workers to leave the company. Many of the employees have been pitched overnight into faceless, high-pressure call-centres, where they are expected to compete for results against the person sitting in the next booth.

However, the alleged "epidemic" of telecoms suicides should also be placed in a wider context. France – the country of savoir vivre, whose President would like national "happiness" to be measured and included in a new international yardstick of political achievement – has a higher suicide rate than almost all other large, developed nations. Its rate of work-related suicides, up to 400 a year, is one of the highest in the world.

Some sociologists suggest a nation which sees personal contentment as a right is more likely to plunge into depression if disappointed. France also has one of the world's highest consumption of anti-depressants.

The 24 suicides among the 100,000 France Telecom employees since February last year is high but less than the overall French average (17.6 suicides a year for every 100,000 people, compared to 6.8 in Britain).

The suicide rate in France Telecom is, in fact, falling. It was higher six or seven years ago but received little publicity. There were 29 suicides among France Telecom employees in 2002, 22 in 2003, 12 in 2008 and 12 so far this year.

Some employees defend their company and suggest that publicity about a "suicide epidemic" has been generated by trades unions in an attempt to de-rail the company's restructuring programme. "These people should try working in a computer start-up company," said Michel, a France Telecom employee since 1998.

"France Telecom is idyllic by comparison. To suggest that the work conditions incite people to commit suicide verges on the indecent. Hundreds of thousands of people on the dole would love to have such jobs."

Jean-Paul Rouannet, 51, would presumably have begged to disagree. On Monday he threw himself from a bridge over a motorway. He left a suicide note for his wife and two children, aged 12 and eight, which said that the "conditions at work" had forced him to take his life.

Mr Rouannet used to work in a France Telecom agency which dealt with large business clients. Six months ago he was transferred, without any choice, to a "reactive call centre" in Annecy where he dealt with customers' problems and complaints but was also expected to chat them up to persuade them to buy new France Telecom services. A friend, Danièle Rochet, said: "He could not cope with the stress of having to meet targets ... He should not have been just abandoned like that, without personal guidance."

Many – but not all – of the other 23 France Telecom employees who have taken their lives in the past 19 months had also been transferred from manual or managerial work to Orange call centres. In some cases, they had to "cold-call" potential customers; in others they were under pressure to sell additional goods or services to customers who rang in with questions or problems.

Olivier Dunand is a delegate of the moderate CFDT trades-union federation on the Comité d'Entreprise, or works council, of France Telecom. He says many employees are being pushed into unsuitable work to try to "break their health" or encourage them to leave the company. "Many people don't want to go into direct sales," he told The Independent yesterday. "It's a difficult adjustment to make, especially for older people, and you have to remember the average age at France Telecom is 48."

Each call centre had about 150 employees in an open-plan office, he said. There was a manager for every 10 or 12 people. "Everything the employee does is counted: when he or she goes to the toilet; when he eats; when he smokes a cigarette. The workers are even made to wear wi-fi ear and mouth pieces so they can deal with calls during their breaks."

Patrice Diochet, the France Telecom representative of the CFDT trades-union federation, said that despite promises made to the government after the 23rd suicide this month, nothing had been done to ease the pressure on employees at the Annecy call centre. "Results were all that counted," he said. "The workers were treated like cattle. When they failed to meet their targets, they were punished or screamed at."

Market-oriented economists argue that unhappy France Telecom employees are victims, in part, of their public servant, job-for-life status. In another company, or another country, they would have been obliged to take redundancy and, possibly, find more suitable work. As it is, France Telecom does offer subsidies and training to employees who want to leave – 22,000 people have left the company in the past four years.

Mr Lombard – who was booed and pelted with rubbish when he visited the Annecy call centre on Monday – has suspended all job transfers and promised to employ more personal counsellors for his workers. He insists the poor France Telecom suicide record – which goes back at least seven years – is "partly a question of contagion". But in trying to impose a culture of risk and uncertainty on employees trained in a public-service culture, he admits he went too far.

'This is one suicide too many'

The employee: Anne-Marie, 57

Like Jean-Paul Rouannet, who committed suicide on Monday, Anne-Marie works at the France Telecom Annecy call centre.

"They sent me here in June. I had no choice. My old job [dealing with business clients] was abolished. After six weeks' training, I was declared ready to start.

"My job is to sell more and more stuff, new services, to clients who ring up with some kind of problem. I am supposed to be obsessed with making more and more money on commission but it doesn't interest me. I just do what I can.

"Apart from the occasional break, I spend the whole day with earphones on my head. Some clients are cruel. They say, 'Are you going to be just like the others? Are you going to commit suicide too?'

"My colleague's death will change nothing. For Didier Lombard [the CEO of France Telecom], we are just pawns. We mean nothing. He says that we are just suicide fashion victims, copying one another. But things cannot go on like this. It is one suicide too many."

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