dimanche 6 mars 2011

Orange stressed

When I was searching for my first job, I always told this joke to my friends: people are suiciding in Orange to get out of it, and I am dying to get into it. Orange is the historical telco (France Telecom) in France who suffered in last years from a high number of suicides among its employees. Well it’s true, I never understood the deal till the day, in a bookstore, my eyes were caught by a black book with the Orange logo on it, and entitled: Orange Stressed.
The author of this book, Ivan du Roy, is a journalist in the weekly Témoignage chrétien and collaborator in the online magazine Basta!. In this book, Ivan du Roy gives us a historical glimpse of Orange and explains why we have suicides today in this great company. The chapters are highly backed with facts, especially from the Stress Observatory of France Telecom.
The story begins in the 1970s where France was way behind its neighbors in terms of telecommunications. To end this situation, the government of Gescard d'Estaing launched the Delta LP plan: Thousands of enthusiastic technicians were recruited by the PTT administration (Post, Telegraphs and Telecommunications) back then to modernize the network infrastructure of France.
In 1990 the transformation of the PTT into an international corporate began. The PTT was divided into two public companies, La Poste and France Telecom. In 1996, France Telecom was privatized into a corporation. One year later, 21% of its capital was sold, and its action was quoted in the stock market. Since that year, and till the day, this percentage kept on increasing. So why was France Telecom privatized?
Many factors enforced this direction. First, there was the Milton Friedman's neoliberalism influence with Ronald Reagan in the USA and Margaret Thatcher in the UK: in these countries, telcos were already privatized. Second, the European Commission, in order to Europeanize the telecom services in Europe, chose the deregulation of this sector. A green book was published on this subject. This decision was highly influenced by some European industrial lobbies (e.g. European Round Table of Industrialists), and a big think-tanker and business man played a key role in this influence: the Belgian Etienne Davignon. Finally, and ironically, it was the left wing in France with Michel Rocard that opened the Pandora box by transforming the PTT administration into a public company. It was their reaction to face the difficult economical situation at the moment. To pass their solution, they had an undeclared agreement with the second most powerful syndicate CFDT behind CGT who knew about it too late. The left wing and the CFDT paid the price of their decisions each one in its upcoming elections. For Ivan du Roy, this direction was a pure political choice, because the announced needs for privatization (modernization and unification of networks, technological revolution, cheaper services...) were already satisfied with the PTT administration.
In 1998, The European telecommunications industry was deregulated for competition. New competitors entered the French markets (e.g. SFR & Bouygues). The strategic response of France Telecom to this deregulation was the expansion in international markets, to catch up the market shares it has lost in France. The CEO of France Telecom Michel Bon led this strategy by a big number of fusions, acquisitions, OPA operations in Europe and in Africa (especially the purchase the UK mobile operator Orange which became the official trademark of France Telecom). Huge sums of money were also paid to buy UMTS licenses in different countries. The French state was blinded by the billions of Euros income due to the sale of actions and never controlled these operations as the main shareholder. Unfortunately, in the summer of 2000, the speculative internet bubble has exploded, and all of risky operations of France Telecom caused it huge amounts of losses and France Telecom was the most indebted company in the world, with 70 billion Euros of debt.
How to get rid of 70 billion of junk bonds? France Telecom will witness the era of cost killers. The new CEO Thierry Breton comes to France Telecom with an army of well paid cost killers. They put in place the NeXT plan to reduce the number of employees by 22000 in three years. Employees were pushed in different ways to leave the company. Cost killing rhymes with work intensification, reorganizations (delocalization…) and shift in professions to ones generating more cash flow like commercial professions. These huge changes caused a cultural choc to the employees. First, these changes question their history and values, in other words they would feel that everything they did before was useless. A typical employee in France Telecom is a technician with the public service culture deeply rooted in him. In a short time, we put him in call center, without convenient training, and force him to give the minimum time to clients, which is completely against his old public service culture. This brutal change caused major psychological problems which are highly reflected on the health of the employee and his private life, leading him to suicide in extreme conditions. Changes came from the top of the hierarchy without being well understood by the employees and the management of these changes seems to have been a big failure.
The alerts are in red for France Telecom: precarity of work, ratio of absenteeism and number of suicide attempts. The direction seemed to be in denial at first. In response to the suicide attempts, the company created cells to accompany persons in difficulty, but never questioned the organization itself. It didn’t consider the roots of the problem.
France Telecom is gradually waking up from this long sleep of denial; there are more and more forces from the inside that are trying to stop the drift of the financial logics from the reality of work.

If you are interested by the subject of stress in work due to modern organization of work, I strongly recommend you to watch the two part French documentary “La mise a mort au travail”. In one of the parts a small debate is held with Stephane Richard, the current CEO of France Telecom.


Update: For french speaking readers, there is a recent interesting documentary on the subject by France 5. It shows what have been done in France Telecom since the arrival of the new CEO Stephane Richard who promised to solve these cumulated social  problems after admitting their existance. You can watch it on YouTube:

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