PARIS (Reuters) – Judges will rule on Friday whether former bosses at telecoms group Orange <ORAN.PA> were responsible for a spate of suicides at the company in the late 2000s, a traumatic episode that prompted soul-searching over corporate culture in France.
Ex-CEO Didier Lombard, along with three former executives and the company itself, is accused of “moral harassment”, in the first case of its kind on this scale in France.
Prosecutors argued that some of the methods employed in a deep restructuring of the company, then known as France Telecom, after privatisation triggered a wave of suicides.
Orange said through a spokesman it acknowledges the suffering expressed by victims and recognises there may have been management errors in implementing the restructuring plan but denies there was any systemic plan or intention to harass employees.
Prosecutors have called for Lombard to be sentenced to a year in jail and fined 15,000 euros ($16,700). Lombard, 77, denies wrongdoing.
The other former executives have also denied responsibility and have said the restructuring plan was an economic necessity.
The former telecoms monopoly used the last day of the trial in July to offer compensation to victims and relatives of those who died. The presiding judge estimated that claims for compensation so far amounted to about 2 million euros ($2.25 million).
A guilty verdict from the court in Paris against Lombard and the company would set a precedent for big business and could pave the way for other similar collective procedures in France.
The case centres around a drive by the former state monopoly to shed 22,000 jobs and redeploy another 10,000 as it adapted to competition in the private sector.
In a country where workers employed on state contracts expect jobs for life and employees in both private and public sectors enjoy strong labour law protection, unions alleged that management sought ways to encourage workers to quit or accept reassignment.
A 2010 report by labour inspectors said management used “pathogenic” restructuring methods such as forcing people into new jobs in far away cities and giving them unattainable performance objectives.
Prosecutors listed at least 18 suicides and 13 suicide attempts between April 2008 and June 2010. According to union records, one employee stabbed himself in the stomach during a staff meeting and one woman threw herself out of a window.
(Reporting by Mathieu Rosemain and Simon Carraud; Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Frances Kerry)