Saturday, October 03, 2009


Remember that sappy MASH theme song? Not only is suicide painless, but it can even be funny in a mordant sort of way. If you think that I'm being insensitive, then read THE WALL STREET JOURNAL article dated September 15 about workers at France Telecom. The company has been afflicted by a rash of suicides among its workers, numbering 23 over the past 18 months. The unions were quick to jump on this stat as evidence that the company's restructuring efforts caused these employees to jump out windows, slash their wrists, fall in front of trains, etc. The company, being chicken shit like most major corporations nowadays, accepted the union's claims and said that it will train all its managers to identify staffers showing signs of depression or erratic behavior. The company accepted these union assertions notwithstanding the fact that the incidence of suicide among the 100,000 France Telecom employees is less than the national average. But in a country like France, ruled by unions, facts don't really matter if it they somehow force it to acknowledge the real global economy, which France seems to think that it can serenely float above like a bloated dirigible.

Recent suicides among France Telecom workers include a 53-year-old employee who tried to end her life by overdosing on barbiturates and another worker who stabbed himself in the stomach during a staff meeting (that's a sure-fire way to wake everybody up). These workers had recently been informed that their jobs were about to change. Let me emphasize: They were not losing their jobs, they were not being fired; their jobs were being changed as a result of a long overdue effort by French Telecom to become at least as efficient as Telecom Italia.

These unsuccessful suicide attempts were enough for the country's labor minister, Xavier Dacros, to summon the CEO of France Telecom for a meeting as he was "extremely preoccupied by the situation" there. Unions called for Parliment to take action.

At France Telecom, 65% of its 100,000 employees have "civil-servant contracts," which basically means that they can't be fired even if they were caught embezzling company coffers or having sex with farm animals in the boardroom. As a result, the company can't fire dead-beat employees and instead has been asking them to change their traditional jobs repairing and installing fixed-line networks, for example, to working in call centers. Call centers? Scare le bleu! Such workers might have to even sell products such as cellphone contracts. Evidently some France Telecom workers would rather play Russian Roulette with a fully loaded handgun than accept such a fate.

"It has not been easy on the staff," a spokeswoman for France Telecom said. "We have asked them to enter a competitive market which is evolving very quickly." Poor precious darlings. We are not talking the Spartan 300 here, folks.

Since the company can't fire anyone and has nudged as many of its workers as it can into a cushy retirement paid mostly by the government, the company has tried to entice more workers to leave by helping them start their own businesses. The company is subsidizing everything from employee owned pizzerias to clothing boutiques. After the start-up fails, which most are likely to do, the employee ex-entrepreneur can rejoin the company at any time with a guaranteed job. And yet the union would have us believe that some workers would rather committ suicide than take this option.

According to a union spokesperson, the stress of learning a new trade, sometimes even in a new city (God forbid!), has proved too difficult for some of these delicate souls. Many workers, according to the union, don't have the necessary skills to work in call centers. Here again, I had to laugh out loud. And what skills might those be? How to operate a phone? Good phone etiquette? Some poor coolie in India can do it, but a Frog making ten times the amount that the Indian fellow does somehow just can't figure out how to do phone duty.

The union representative summed the issue up by saying, "Of course our company needs to restructure to function. But a business without compassion simply doesn't work."

Is this what the famous French joie de vivre has been reduced to, hanging yourself because you might have work in a call center? Maybe we shouldn't be so surprised by this French reaction to "workplace hardship;" we are talking, afterall, about a nation whose entire army deserted in the middle of WWI and that was a welcome mat for the German army in WWII.

Of course, this "issue" in all likelihood is just another piece of propaganda propagated by a union angling for more perks and benefits. Still, it says a lot about the French that the government and corporate establishment accept this claim so readily. No wonder the French economy has grown over the past 25 years at 50% less rate than the US economy. No wonder the French unemployment rate during that span has consistently been almost twice the US rate. Why would anyone want to hire such expensive crybabies?

France will alway be a lovely place to visit, but I sure wouldn't want to hire there.

No comments: