(3 May 2022) EPSU and affiliates have a long and strenuous history with Europe’s largest care company, ORPEA. For years, unions across Europe have fought hard against the group’s poor treatment of workers and residents, from irregular employment contracts to union busting to misuse of public funds. It took German workers over 200 days of strike action to get dismissed strikers reinstated and a collective agreement in a rehabilitation clinic for example. In France, dozens of CGT shop stewards have been fired, as well as members as soon as management became aware of their trade union membership. The group has continuously denied any wrongdoing and has sought to intimidate and even criminalise workers and unions for speaking out.
At the beginning of this year, investigative journalist Victor Castanet published a book, ‘Les fossoyeurs’ (The Gravediggers), which brought the dark realities of the company in France into the public eye. The book’s revelations sparked a large public backlash. The company’s share prices plummeted following the publication and the French government summoned ORPEA’s then-CEO for immediate questioning and opened an investigation into the company’s use of public funds. Investigations into the company were also opened in Belgium.
Whilst still denying the allegations, ORPEA has taken a number of steps in response to the scandal, including firing the CEO and appointing a new one soon after the publication of the book. However, the actions taken so far are clearly focussed on repairing ORPEA’s image in the eyes of investors, rather than making real changes. Global agreements and other ‘window-dressing’ exercises do not address the core issues.
One example of the company’s attitude towards workers rights is its resistance to negotiating a European works council (EWC) with its unions and EPSU. After three years, legislation forced the company to grant workers information and consultation rights at European level the EWC was eventually established last year. But despite a good first meeting of EWC last month and all the assurances from management that they are making changes with regards to workers’ rights, the company in France and its German subsidiary still have on-going court cases against unions and workers.
In Germany, Bremen Bremerhaven labour court ruled that ORPEA subsidiary Senioren Wohnpark Weser must pay €15,000 in damages to the union representative and EWC chairperson, Nicole Meyer, for proven bullying. The court also dismissed the subsidiary’s ‘character assassination’ allegations. This court case came after Bremen Regional Labour Court ruled in February 2022 that the employer's dismissal attempts were unlawful. And still, the employer is looking to appeal the decision again.
In France, unions recently took ORPEA to court following revelations that the company had rigged the professional trade union elections in favour of the in-house union Arc-en-Ciel. The French unions CGT and CFDT also revealed in a report with CICTAR that the company is using a complex web of subsidiaries to manage its finances, including investments in Luxembourg that were not previously revealed.
The actions taken by the company in response to the scandal do nothing to solve these issues, nor for the withdrawal of the court-cases. In fact, global agreements reached without the unions that organise the vast majority of ORPEA workers could even be used against them. ORPEA’s track record of anti-union practices as the representative French unions facing the company in Court made clear, and misuse of public funds (as shown by the IGAS IGF report) cannot be whitewashed easily.
Within EPSU, the unions will work together to strengthen the EWC to ensure it has proper information and consultation rights. For example, ORPEA will need to present the EWC with its project to integrate Environmental, Social and Governance principles in its operations for information and consultation. We will work together to develop our demands to the company in order to address the real, urgent problems that improve the social aspects of workers and the humane care of residents.