Today, in a landmark case for worker’s rights and workplace accountability, three former executives of telecommunication company Orange (formerly known as France Télécom) were charged with “collective moral harassment” after creating a work environment which was found to have directly contributed to the death by suicide of 35 employees. This included, according to NPR , 19 employees who died by suicide between 2008 and 2009, many of whom “left notes blaming the company or who killed themselves at work.”
Why would a company lead a terror campaign against its own workers? Money, of course: The plan was enacted as part of a push to get rid of 22,000 employees in order to counterbalance $50 million in debt incurred after the company privatized—it was formerly a piece of the French government’s Ministry of Posts and Telecommunications, meaning its employees were granted special protection as civil servants that prevented their higher-ups from firing them. According to the New York Times, the executives attempted to solve this dilemma by creating an “atmosphere of fear” and purposefully stoked “severe anxiety” in order to drive workers to quit. Former CEO Didier Lombard, sentenced to four months in jail and a $16,000 fine, reportedly called the strategies part of a plan to get rid of unwanted employees “either through the window or through the door.” Way to say the quiet part loud, Monsieur!
An abusive workplace can leave a person feeling powerless, hopeless, and trapped. It is demoralizing and degrading to find oneself at the beck and call of higher-ups who see their employees less as human beings and more as units retained for the express purpose of making money. Just this year, contract workers who moderate content at Facebook, Google and Youtube shared downright horrific stories of corrosive workplace practices, and former employees at suitcase startup Away spoke out about the company’s toxic work environment earlier this month. Worse, not only can it feel like there’s no recourse for mistreated employees—no options besides shutting up and taking it or quitting and wading back into the job market—it also tends to be true: justice is hard to obtain in a system designed to favor the boss over the worker. Though Away’s CEO resigned days after The Verge published aggressive Slack messages she sent to employees, it’s unclear what substantive policy changes the company will enact to prevent similar misuses of power in the future. It’s unclear if any of the tech giants who outsource their content mod needs have made any significant changes to encourage healthier environments for those workers, either.
Two other executives, Lombard’s deputy and Orange’s then-director of human resources, also received jail time and fines, and the company itself was fined around $83,000 in damages. But, most significantly, this case marked the first time a French company has been charged with collective moral harassment, setting an important precedent for similar cases in the future. There are significant differences between French and American work culture, and between the way mental health issues are treated in the workplace today versus 10 years ago, but misuse of power is a problem that will persist for as long as our current economic system does.
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