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France: Government Pounces on OTC

by Jon HenleyGuardian (London)
February 27th, 2004

When a small British company decided the end had come for one of its fibre optics factories, it did what most British firms would do. It took away the machines, locked the gates, laid off the staff and sent in the liquidators. Unfortunately for Optical Cable Technology of Sutton Valence, Kent, the factory it shut down was in Dourdan, a French country town outside Paris. And the plant's closure has led to the arrest of the manager, an investigation by the public prosecutor, and a full-scale national outcry at the "outrageous" antics of foreign firms.

The French trade and industry secretary, Nicole Fontaine, has savaged OCT's behaviour as "loutish and unbridled liberalism", while the public prosecutor in nearby Evry confirmed he would soon formally request British police help so those responsible could be brought to justice.

According to reports in the French press - mostly denied by the British - the 16 employees of OCT's French plant turned up for work last Friday to find it had been emptied overnight of machinery and raw materials, the phone lines had been cut and the files had gone. They were given a brief letter, in bad French, telling them they were fired "as of now". Each employee was offered 500 (334) in compensation - which all refused on the grounds that under French law most would be entitled to several years of redundancy pay based on a percentage of their salaries.

Paul Welch, the local manager, was detained by French police for 24 hours and could face up to a year in jail for a range of offences that include hindering the work of labour inspectors (by removing the company's files) and firing a protected member of staff (a union representative).

Such alleged disregard of France's highly protective employment laws, by a British company to boot, prompted political and media outrage.

French ire has been principally directed at Insolvency Advisory Service (IAS) Ltd, the Hampshire-based liquidation agency brought in by OCT to close down the factory and handle the subsequent fallout. The agency's badly translated letter and questionnaire to the Dourdan employees has been gleefully reproduced in most French papers, and a scandalised Libration reported yesterday that the IAS representative sent to face the employees could not speak French and had not bothered to take an interpreter.

But Michael Lord-Castle of IAS told the Guardian that the French perception of the affair had been grossly distorted. He said OCT was insolvent and had to cease trading because under British law it could be sued if it did not. Mr Lord-Castle said his staff had removed only three pieces of machinery from the factory, leaving 140 in place. He had been instructed to sue Ms Fontaine for slander. The files and documents had been removed for protection.

"We spoke individually to every French employee about what was happening and explained the situation to them," he said.

"They were offered 500 as a gesture to help them while their full entitlements were worked out with the French unemployment services. We have taken the utmost care with this whole affair and the way it has been portrayed in France is completely false."

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