EPO: Leadership crisis


European Patent Office (EPO) Crisis 

In the discreet and policed world of international organisations, demonstration is an extremely rare practice. The events scheduled for Tuesday 11 October in Munich and Thursday 13 October in The Hague by examiners from the European Patent Office (EPO) are, however, the umpteenth in a long series that will begin in 2013. This is the only way employees have found to alert the 38 states meeting in the Administrative Council on 12 and 13 October to a social situation that has been worsening for more than three years.

There will be no question of money. There is no mention of remuneration at the “Office”. At more than 5,000 euros the hiring salary, to which is added the expatriation bonus, paid children’s schools and a few other benefits, the employees know they are well off. To attract scientists from all over the world, the office has had to align itself with the best paid civil servants in Europe. But money isn’t everything.

The EPO is one of a handful of international organisations in the world, with a legal status all its own. Headquartered in Munich with branches in Berlin, The Hague and Vienna, it employs 7000 people to examine inventors’ applications and issue in three languages the valuable patents it has held a monopoly on for forty years.

In July 2010, Frenchman Benoît Battistelli took over the reins. It was shortly after the arrival of this former director general of the National Institute of Industrial Property (INPI) that working conditions deteriorated, says Suepo, the in-house union. The man, who has a very particular conception of the right to strike, who imposed productivity criteria and created an “investigation unit” to investigate employees, became their pet peeve. It’s obviously reciprocal.

The Office enjoys a form of legal immunity

It had to go far for this community of engineers – former top of the class who came knocking on the door of the EPO, not to make a career, but because they appreciated the ten-nation table and the tranquillity of the job – to denounce the hell of their golden prison.

In the last five years, four of them have killed themselves. A Belgian father threw himself out of his office window in The Hague. Another committed suicide on the last day of his holiday. After each of the tragedies, the union demanded an independent investigation. Management refused to listen, claiming that these acts had nothing to do with work. For the unions, it was the last straw.

The problem is that, like any international organisation (the OECD, the European Space Agency, etc.), the EPO enjoys a form of legal immunity: no national law can be imposed on it. Only the internal regulations are authoritative. “This is the problem with all these organisations. If all goes well, all is well. But at the slightest grain of sand, nothing can be done,” deplores Philip Cordery, one of the representatives of the French abroad who has alerted successive governments and industry ministers to the atmosphere at the EPO.

“Three years ago, something broke.”

There was a time when it was good to work at the Office. The conditions were so pleasant that his retirement was even postponed. Andreas, a biologist by training, had planned to retire at the age of 63. He had “thrown in the towel” earlier, “like many of us have done lately”. With a handful of others, he agreed to confide in Le Monde, on the condition that his anonymity would be preserved and that the meeting would take place far from The Hague. “You understand, if anyone finds out that I spoke … Even in retirement, I am bound to a certain discretion.” He would not want to suffer the same fate as one of his colleagues, whose pension has been reduced by 30%. “Three years ago, something broke,” he explains. The work was still interesting, but the atmosphere was becoming unbearable”. The liberal and tactless methods of the new president don’t work. Imposing production criteria on a surplus organisation with an annual budget of 2 billion, and whose patents are deemed virtually unassailable in court, is nonsense for this engineer.

By tradition, and because an examiner does not become operational until after three years, the old ones support the new ones. “In the end, I saw colleagues refusing to help the newcomers for fear of wasting time and on the pretext that it was of no benefit to them. Now that we are being evaluated on our objectives …”.

It is precisely to denounce this policy of numbers that Sylvia agreed to testify. “Management is not only destroying working conditions, but also the system of the European economy. The patents we issue are not so good. But a drop in quality will have consequences for the industry, she deplores. There is money at stake.”

Since the Suepo union denounced the climate of fear and tension in which employees work, several of its representatives have been the subject of disciplinary proceedings. France, Germany and the UK have expressed their concern and demanded at the March board meeting that all proceedings be suspended until an independent social audit is carried out. At the end of September, the audit had still not been completed, but the general secretary of Suepo in The Hague was going before the disciplinary committee. Two other employees are concerned.

“We are far from coincidence”.

Staff representatives shout union harassment. Management does not see the report: “These proceedings follow a complaint of harassment, defamation and threats that led to the resignation of an elected staff representative”, it recalls. Me Amélie Lefebvre, of the Bourdon law firm and counsel for Suepo, deplores the fact that “Mr. Battistelli, who considers himself bound neither by his board of directors nor by the national courts, takes refuge behind his functional immunity to take such brutal retaliatory measures against those who question his social policy”. “When, over the past two years, the sanctions taken against staff representatives have backfired, we are far from coincidental,” says Philip Cordery, Member of Parliament. On 13 October, he will march alongside the employees.


Emeline Cazi
Journalist at Le Monde


To know more follow the link to Le Monde

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