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Works Committee Experts: "AFP’s Model Is Based on the Massive Use of Casual Labour Contracts".
 Emmanuel Hoog: Don’t Worry - Be Happy!

Monday 26 November 2012

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

SUD-AFP, Monday November 26, 2012: To judge from management’s soothing account of the latest Works Committee meeting, [1] one could be forgiven for thinking not only that the said body existed only to rubber-stamp Emmanuel Hoog’s strategic decisions, but that it had even been obliging enough to commission an external audit for the same purpose!

That could not be further from the truth. The Sextant Report [2] - commissioned by the Works Committee to examine AFP’s 2011 accounts - raises major questions about many of the blithe assumptions made by AFP management. And the November 22 meeting challenged the CEO’s plans on several major points. An account of some key issues:

Worldwide Casualisation

Over the past year, AFP management has at long last begun providing your elected representatives with data on staffing worldwide, rather than only on people whose labour contracts are drawn up under French law ("headquarters status"). This is a great step forward, which SUD had been demanding for years. It will finally allow us to give visibility to all categories of staff: an essential task given that the figures show that "local hires" are henceforth in the majority!

According to the Sextant Report, based on data provided to the auditors by management, as of the start of this year just over 51% of AFP’s 2,857 staff around the world (the figure excludes freelancers, who unfortunately aren’t covered by the report), had labour contracts not covered by French labour law. A situation which of course helps management to "divide and rule", by playing different types of staff off against each other.

Examination of the many tables and graphs featured in the report shows that in the three years between the end of 2008 and the start of 2012, the number of "HQ-status" expatriates - almost all of whom are journalists - fell by 5%, going from 201 to 191. In the same period, the number of staff covered by what management calls "regional status" soared by 90%, going from 30 to 57. Meanwhile the ranks of staff classified as being on "permanent" non-French contracts increased only marginally, from 882 to 884. However the numbers on temporary local-status contracts exploded, going from 31 to 77 - an increase of 148%.

Which explains why the auditors at Sextant noted in their report that " AFP’s model of human resources is built on a massive foundation of insecure labour contracts ".

This confirms the calculations made by SUD on the basis of overall staffing figures provided by management to the Works Committee in October [3]; data which includes freelancers. We found that around one in five of all staff working in mainland France are on insecure labour contracts of one kind or another. In the rest of the world the percentage is no less than 35%. And the latter figure is almost certainly underestimated given that what passes for a "permanent" labour contract in many countries around the world is much less secure than a French "contrat à durée indéterminée".

As regards AFP management’s claim to have "taken care of casualisation by creating a Paris-region pool [of full-status reporters] and bringing in a guaranteed minimum wage for freelancers," it should be noted that the agreement dealt only with the most flagrant abuses that had been denounced by the Paris labour inspectorate, leaving many freelancers by the wayside, some of whom are in dire straits. (The agreement, which SUD refused to sign, concerned only HQ status staff).

At the November 22nd Works Committee meeting, SUD once again asked management to carry out a worldwide audit of the contractual statuses, salaries and rights of all AFP staff, country by country. We also asked for this data to be calculated in "full-time equivalent" terms, which makes staffing figures truly comparable.

Show-off Projects, Spin and Other "Adventures"

The audit mentions in passing two of the supposedly trendy projects launched by Emmanuel Hoog’s predecessor, Pierre Louette. The Delaware-based subsidiary Newzwag, which launched a short-lived AFP news quiz on Facebook [4], and Citizenside, which at the time of writing still features on the AFP web site as a subsidiary, even though management has announced that it is pulling out.

According to a document requested by SUD, and provided to the Works Committee by management in January 2010, the abortive Newzwag project had at that time cost the agency at least 2.2 million dollars (1.6 million euros). It would appear that the effects of the disaster are still on the books, as the Sextant report cites the subsidiary as having a net book value of precisely zero at the end of 2011. The same figure is given for Citizenside: we are still to learn exactly how much that little foray into the wild and wonderful world of "citizen journalism" has cost us.

"Since I have been at the helm, we have not committed ourselves to any new adventures," M. Hoog told the Works Committee. This is at best a half-truth, for what will be the end-result of the extraordinary blossoming of company PR and spin that AFP has seen under Emmanuel Hoog?
The Sextant report notes that AFP’s outlays on "advertising and public relations" more than doubled between 2010 and 2011, to reach 651,000€ in the latter year. And that figure does not include the paid time that some journalists agree to devote (unfortunately, in our view) to activities such as blog posts, Facebook promos and tweets which in some cases are indistinguishable from marketing.

And as M. Hoog himself used the word "adventures", we reminded him of another embarrassing holdover from the Louette era: AFP’s agreement with the "Relaxnews" company, which markets itself as the "number-one source for news about leisure". According to a recent article on the French news site "Rue89", the said company has ventured into the provision of fake user-reviews on client web sites - an activity which is illegal in France.

We pointed out the Rue89 story to management shortly after it appeared on October 27th - but are still awaiting their reaction.

Rather than addressing that vexed issue, or any of the other interesting points raised by the Sextant report that SUD pointed out to him, M. Hoog preferred to try and lull the Works Committee to sleep with a long speech full of vague generalities.

There was however one moment of comedy, albeit involuntary, when Emmanuel Hoog tried to rewrite history by claiming that he had always been a staunch defender of AFP’s founding statutes.

When SUD’s elected Works Committee member opined that future audits should pay more attention to AFP’s relationship with the French state, and notably to the "general interest mission" that is due to be defined under the new dispensation adopted by parliament early this year, the CEO stated that he had always defended the said mission, and was pleased to hear that others were finally catching up! We reminded him of the numerous attempts made to undermine the company’s statutes since 2008, the last of which, the Legendre draft law, saw M. Hoog playing a leading role, to the extent of being condemned almost unanimously by staff via a stinging no-confidence motion in 2011.

Creation of a "France Region", Reform of Documentation Service

The agenda of the November 22 meeting included the creation of no less than two new major departments at AFP: a "Région France", to bring together all aspects of covering AFP’s home country, and a new "Direction" aimed at federating the current "General Documentation", "Photo Documentation" and "Publishing" services.

Management chose to present these two projects to the Works Committee in very different terms. Its approach to the "Région France" project involves the creation of no less than four working groups and a stated desire to "go back to the drawing-board" and study all aspects of the process of covering France.

In stark contrast, the documents provided to convince your elected representatives of the need for a new "Direction de la documentation et de l’édition" fail to even mention the tasks traditionally fulfilled by the two main entities involved: the documentation services for text and photo.

Which seems strange, for those activities are both important and worthy of reflection. What is the future of "Documentation générale" (doc. text) once the new Iris editorial system has been fully rolled out? When is management going to address the internal contradictions of the existing service? And what are the plans for the key activity of picture indexing carried out by the "Doc. Photo" service?

Rather than delving into such issues Yves Gacon, who is slated to head the new combined service, preferred to regale us with whizz-bang prospects of future "multimedia dossiers" and the conservation of AFP’s archives.

On the latter issue, we pointed out that as noted in the Sextant report, management had budgetted a million euros in both 2011 and this year to start protecting and digitalising the agency’s vast archives, of which a non-negligeable part is gradually rotting away in the cellars of the headquarters building on Place de la Bourse. Of those sums, the amount actually spent in both years has been exactly zero.

For a CEO who claims credit for digitalising the vast archives of the French National Audiovisual Institute, and who has written a book on the importance of memory, the result so far is not exactly brilliant!

As regards the plan to set up a "Région France", which was being presented to the Works Committee for the first time, a representative of the Force Ouvrière trade union delivered a stinging indictment of the ever-increasing workload for journalists working in the French regions. Given the stress and long working hours involved, he said, it was not surprising that management could not find candidates for some posts.

SUD could not agree more. Before bandying about such explosive concepts as "breaking down barriers between different functions" ("décloisonnement") in coverage of France, management needs to look urgently at working conditions for almost all journalists in production services, not to mention the density of the regional network and the issue of casualisation!

SUD-AFP Trade Union, Monday November 26 2012
NB: The next works committee takes place on December 13.
Also in the works: union-management talks on staff mobility, due to start on December 12.

[1To be found in the inscrutable depths of the ASAP intranet site, under "Direction générale" and in French only.

[2An electronic version of the report should be available soon. In addition to the present text, SUD will be providing a summary in both French and English.

[3As laid down by French labour law, management provides the committee with these figures every three months.

[4For more on this, see sharp-words.com (French only).