European Patent Office sets obstacle course to freedom of communication

News, Working conditions

On 6 July 2022, the Administrative Tribunal of the International Labour Organisation (ILOAT) issued – among others – Judgment No. 4551 against the European Patent Organisation (EPOrg), ruling that restrictions put on the use of the internal mail system since 2013 were contrary to the freedom of communication and must be quashed.

The constraints were introduced when Benoit Battistelli was at the helm of the EPO, which was a time of deep social conflict, during which staff and union representatives were dismissed or degraded and measures curbing fundamental rights of staff were introduced (e.g. illegal strike regulations Judgments No. 4430,4432-4435, social democracy reform Judgments No. 4550 and 4482).

Since the beginning of the presidency of António Campinos in 2018 and before the judgment was delivered, the Central Staff Committee (CSC) of the EPO addressed the topic multiple times, especially during the corona pandemic when communicating with staff efficiently via email was of utmost importance. To no avail, the limitations remained and  cost cutting measures – particularly in terms of salary indexation – and an extremely divisive childcare and education allowance reform were pushed through in the middle of the pandemic. In an organisation of 6200+ employees, submitting the sending of emails to more than 50 addressees to criteria laid down by EPO management is the equivalent of trampling on the freedom of communication of the staff committees and staff union of the EPO. This is what the ILOAT Ruled in its Judgment of 6 July 2022.

Since then, the Central Staff Committee (CSC) of the EPO has requested multiple times the immediate execution of the Judgment and the reinstatement of the former rules on mass emails in force prior to 31 May 2013.

As a precondition for the judgment to be executed, the EPO requires that allegedly for reasons of data protection, an unsubscribe option should be added to all emails originating from staff representation as it claims that by sending emails to staff about their working conditions, staff committees – which are statutory bodies acting in the interest of the organisation – are engaging in direct marketing for recruiting members (!)

Further, the EPO demands that staff representation uses a third-party external provider for sending emails to staff, which seems at odds with data protection requirements. Such an external provider would be a “black box” over which staff committees have no control: there would be no possibility of addressing specific groups of staff individually, or any insight into who the mailing list recipients are.

In January 2023, all EPO staff was invited to gather in General Assemblies in all four places of employment. A resolution  urging the Administrative Council and President Antonio Campinos to put an end to breaches of the right to freedom of association and of the right to freedom of communication at the EPO received broad support (998 staff members representing 97% of voters). To no avail: an application for execution of the judgment has been filed with the ILOAT at the beginning of 2023.

More than 1 year after the judgment, there does not seem to be any intention by the EPO of actually delivering on the purported commitment by the Office ‘to executing Judgment No. 4551 of the Tribunal as swiftly and comprehensively as possible’ in the near future.

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