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."