Suicides at Renault-France: working conditions are causing distress
What on earth is going on at the Technocentre, the research centre of the French multinational Renault? Following two similar catastrophes in the autumn a third worker committed suicide at the end of February... The French affiliates* of the ITUC have blamed stressful working conditions for causing suffering and distress. In early May, the health insurance and social security agency recognised one of these deaths as an occupational accident. We hear how Vincent Neveu, the CGT official covering the group’s engineering and white-collar workers, sees things.
Three suicides in under six months… how would you explain these repeated disasters at the Renault Group’s research plant?
One figure probably sums up the situation for staff at this plant better than anything: the management itself has said that every employee ‘donates’ an average of 40 days’ leave entitlement each year to the company as they are unable to meet their targets in the time available. Just a few years ago Renault was producing four models a year. But now, with fewer staff and reduced resources and training budgets, the 12,000 employees of the Technocentre have to design six. The pressure could not be higher. To achieve its objectives, the group management constantly send out messages telling the staff that if they do not achieve their own tasks the whole company will pay the price and such and such a plant will have to lay people off. The three men who killed themselves in recent months were all working on designing new models. They were conscientious workers, deeply committed to their work and keen to do their best and assume their responsibilities. It is hard to imagine how the engineers, middle managers and technicians are treated at this plant. Despite the huge profits of the group (3 thousand million euros in the last financial year), pressure over redundancy, promotion and wages is commonly used.
It’s an unhealthy form of management then?
Yes, that’s the least you can say. The technique preferred by the group’s management is promoting continuous competition between the workers. There are no set hours at the Guyancourt plant, with no official opening or closing times. Wage rises are tied to the employees’ ability to achieve their individual targets, which are constantly increased. Everyone is continually urged to do more and do it better than the rest. It’s a dreadful approach, leaving no room for solidarity or respite. I remember listening one day to a very well-known French labour inspector who warned of the risks when managers use this form of work organisation, since by failing to allow their employees rest periods they were “externalising” the need for relaxation. That very accurate comment describes the daily life of employees of the Technocentre very well. Everything, from the financial pressure from threats of relocation to the individualisation of career structures and the bureaucracy of relationships with the hierarchy, is pushing the workers to give more and more until they collapse. Forty years ago, 110,000 people were working at Renault France, but now there are just 45,000 producing five or six more vehicles per worker. Technology has changed, of course, but so have the management methods and, with them, the performance related pay that encourages everyone to view their colleagues as competitors and encourages workers to welcome the failure of a colleague in the hope of being better paid themselves.
Does the decision of the health insurance company to recognise one of the suicides as an occupational accident confirm what you are saying?
I think so, yes. In any event, the discussions amongst the trade union organisations at the plant showed that they all saw things the same way. The working conditions at the Technocentre are extremely stressful and are provoking a very dangerous form of suffering and distress. We will support the families in continuing to fight to get the case recognised as an “inexcusable management error”, i.e. a failure by the group to fulfil its obligations on occupational health and safety. We will also be trying to get justice for our two other colleagues who took their own lives at the start of this year: the technician who drowned himself in a lake near the plant on 22 January, and the other, who killed himself near his home in mid-February after leaving a message explaining that he could no longer cope with his problems at the company. We need to get rid of the taboo surrounding suffering at work. The trade union movement has been rather slow in addressing this issue. We need to make up for the lost time. When someone tries to take their life at some workplace a strong signal should be sent to all working people. By recognising the first suicide as an occupational accident the French social security system recently confirmed that. Now it is up to us to ensure that such dramas are not repeated. According to the World Health Organisation, France has the highest figures, after Ukraine and the USA, for work-related depression. All trade unionists need to tackle this problem as a matter of urgency.
The day after the last suicide we demanded the restoration of controls on working time. We demand a review of the ways in which workers are evaluated at the end of the year and a change in the internal communication policy. The management needs to change its tone and to stop worrying and pressurising workers constantly. We also demanded the establishment of better working conditions and will be able to provide more details after carrying out the survey we hope to be allowed to do. More broadly, we really must improve our relations with the workers. Would the dramatic events that have just taken place have done so if we had been working more closely with the plant and could have warned the management?
How can you get the engineers, middle managers and technicians to react a bit themselves?
That is no easy task, we admit. Many employees, especially young people, now consider it normal to “give” unreservedly in return for keeping their jobs. How can we make progress? We will not convince our colleagues by blindly repeating our demands and ordering them to follow us or get what they deserve. By pressurising them and making them feel guilty we will simply be using the kind of managerial methods that we deplore. Anyway, what right do we have to do that? We will not criticise the workers. I remember the case we had to deal with last autumn: the management wanted staff to work from home, to do telework. When we heard that negotiations had begun on that proposal, the CGT initially rejected the idea, which we considered dangerous. But we were surprised by the amount of interest amongst the staff, the young engineers, and especially women.
So instead we decided to list some demands related to the proposal as a way of reviewing the whole issue of working time and workloads. That was our approach and we managed to obtain some general guarantees on a system that looked like isolating the engineers and middle managers even further. Let’s try the same approach with working conditions and working time. Let’s look at the real issues involved. Let’s talk to the workers about workloads and what they imply, so that we can get some general improvements and prevent things getting worse.
Has the management accepted the gravity of the current problems in the company?
I think so. The day after the third suicide, the management of the plant and of the Renault group stated that the workers of the Technocentre urgently needed to recover their “serenity” and “trust” and to “enjoy working again”. That was a very different message from everything we had heard before. After first being in denial, the management was agreeing to accept things as they were and appointed a new manager for the engineering section. In early May it accepted the ruling of the health insurance and social security agency. There is no doubt that the management of the Renault group is prepared to tackle the problems head on. But recognising the extent of the distress is not the same as tackling the concrete issues. We are still waiting to see the increase in staffing that we requested to allow the employees to work in better conditions, and the increased provision for training… There are still things to be sorted out at the Technocentre but at least people are talking, which is already an important step.
Interview by Martine Hassoun
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