Sony executives freed after 24-hour 'bossknapping'


WITH HIS bald pate, wire-rimmed glasses, grey suit and silk tie, Serge Foucher looked the very picture of business management when his 24-hour imprisonment at the hands of angry workers ended yesterday morning. “I’m happy to be free and to see the light of day again,” said Mr Foucher, the chief executive officer of Sony France.

Mr Foucher, Sony’s head of human resources, and two local plant officials were held in a meeting room in a videotape factory at Pontonx-sur-l’Adour, in the Landes region of southwest France.

The plant’s 311 employees were notified in December that they would lose their jobs when the factory closes on April 17th. Mr Foucher dropped by to say a last farewell on Thursday afternoon, and was detained by workers objecting to the severance package they’d been offered. They blocked access to the plant with branches and tree trunks, and 20 gendarmes surrounded the site.

Patrick Hachaguer, the local representative of the CGT communist trade union, said the atmosphere inside the plant was “good-natured”, though the Sony executives may have thought differently.

“He won’t listen to us. We had no other solution,” Mr Hachaguer added.

This latest incident of “bossknapping” ended at 10.30am when the Sony executives walked out of the plant, accompanied by trade union representatives.

Employees lined both sides of the pathway, and watched the men leave in silence. The executives got into a minivan and were driven to the sous-préfecture in nearby Dax, where negotiations continued yesterday afternoon.

“The state will facilitate the discussions,” said Étienne Guyot, the prefect of the Landes department.

When a Sony factory closed a year ago in Alsace, financial benefits were 50 per cent better, the workers said.

“We’re not asking the impossible, but we demand to be treated the same as other Sony France employees when they were fired,” Mr Hachaguer said.

Le Figaro newspaper reported the Sony employees are receiving €45,000 more than the legally required indemnities, and between nine and 18 months paid leave to seek other employment. But Mr Hachaguer said Sony offered one month of salary for each year worked, and nothing extra for workers over age 55.

“We don’t have much to lose because we’ve already lost our jobs,” he added. “Sony France decided to give us cut-rate compensation, when we’re in a much worse situation because of the economic crisis.”

“Job offers have shrunk down to nothing,” a Sony employee named Philippe told France Info radio. “There’s no work to be found in the entire region. If I have to move, I will. I’ve lived here 24 years, and I never imagined the place would shut down.”

“If we move, we get a bonus of €3,500,” Jean-Michel Cauna, who has worked in the plant for 19 years, told AFP. “In Alsace, all costs were paid.”

Chantal Omiciuolo (50) said holding the executives hostage “was our last chance. We didn’t have a choice”.

The possibility of converting the plant to produce solar panels was considered and abandoned. Union representatives opposed the project, saying Sony did not consult them.

Yesterday afternoon, Mr Hachaguer said progress was being made on the treatment of older workers, longer leave to seek new jobs and training for sacked employees.

But he said negotiations were still blocked on the basic amount of the severance package.

The unemployment agency UNEDIC announced this week that between 375,000 and 454,000 more French people will lose jobs this year, depending on whether the economy shrinks 1.5 per cent or 1.8 per cent.

The government is bracing for nationwide strikes and demonstrations on March 19th.

The incident at Sony France may inspire others – especially if the “bossknappers” are able to negotiate better terms.

Last year, an Englishman who was running a car parts factory in eastern France was held for 48 hours by his employees.

In a separate incident, 14 people were injured when police stormed an ice cream plant to free a manager who was taken hostage.