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European HP workers take IT giant to court over 'high handed' job cuts

Staff reps aim to force bosses back to the table

HP's European Works Council* is suing the firm and terminating its works council agreement with the global giant, claiming HP has obstructed the European consultation process over its mega redundancy programme. It now plans to negotiate a new agreement under more recent legislation.

Globally around 27,000 29,000 HPers will become ex-HPers over the next two years, including an estimated 8,000 workers in Europe. This is all part of CEO Meg Whitman's turnaround plan to free up cash to plough into R&D.

On 22 October, a lawyer acting on behalf of the EWC - which comprises 44 HP employees and a European coordinator Koen Dries - lodged a subpoena with the Brussels Labour Court.

"The EWC is suing HP Global," Dries told The Channel.

Dries has been in the role since 2010 and is the HP EWC rep for trade unions IndustriAll and Uni Europa.

He claimed HP did not respect Article 13 of the EWC directive by "refusing the EWC their legal right to be assisted by experts of their choosing" (Dries himself), "by giving only partial information on the restructuring plan and by closing the consultation and information process even before the consultation could start".

The papers were filed in Belgium because HP's EWC is registered in that country, but the case itself is against HP Global. The papers give an effective six-month notice of the termination of the existing works council agreement. The council plans to recast itself under the 2009 EWC directive.

Article 6 of the 2009 directive compels companies by law to take a seat at the negotiating table, and should give HP fewer "possibilities to avoid social dialogue ... and give employees better possibilities to influence the decision-making process", said Dries.

The court is due to convene on 27 November. HP is expected to challenge the content of the subpoena, which means the court will not give a ruling during that session.

"But it [the court] will fix a calendar to exchange the arguments between the EWC and HP, and fix a date to publicly debate those arguments. One month after that debate, the court will issue a ruling," said Dries.

The current European Works Council agreement for HP stipulates that local restructuring processes cannot start until the European consultation and information process has been fully carried out. The best case-scenario is that the European Labour court "stops the execution of the [redundancy] plans until this [consultation] procedure is properly dealt with," said Dries.

However, while this is legally possible, it would be the first time the Belgian courts would have used this method, he added. Dries said that Belgian employment legislation, "like the UK's, is weak", saying this was one of the reasons HP chose to register its EWC there.

An HP spokeswoman said: "HP is disappointed by the recent unilateral termination of the agreement, which has enabled and governed the good social dialogue between the EWC employee representatives and HP management for more than 15 years.

"HP reaffirms its ongoing commitment to comprehensive communication with employees, and to inform and consult with its European and other works councils and employee forums, based on mutual trust and cooperation.

"HP Management continues to maintain constructive dialogue with the EWC on all subjects throughout the six-month notice period of the agreement, and beyond."

Meanwhile, more than a dozen trade unions that represent HP employees - including Unite and PCS - last month linked arms to form the HP European Alliance (HPEA). IndustriAll and UNI Global are leading the group.

The group hopes to strengthen trade union co-ordination across the region, especially in countries where organisation was deemed weak, to share information and boost collective bargaining.

"HP has acted in a high-handed manner over its plans to cut jobs. HP management has not been transparent about informing employees in individual countries how the cuts will affect them," said Marcus Courtney, head of UNI ICTS in a statement.

He added the US titan had "flagrantly disregarded" its duty to inform and consult under the EWC agreement.

There are indications that there is some visibility of HP's planned job cuts in France, the Netherlands and parts of the Nordic region, but the UK still has no agreed blueprint, say sources.

Isabelle Barthes, senior policy advisor at trade union giant IndustriAll, said she hopes the Belgian Labour court will publicly condemn HP's actions and embarrass the firm.

Barthes told The Channel that the EWC has been trying to understand why HP feels it needs to slash thousands of jobs. While Barthes contends that "the economic justification is not there", meaning HP is doing well enough so that the cuts should not be necessary.

She said of EWC: "We are not talking about a bunch of hard-liners. There wasn't good dialogue with HP so they [EWC] got fed up with the way staff were being treated," said Barthes.

Such drastic job cuts across Europe "will further destabilise HP in the EU as a company, reduce client satisfaction and endanger the employment of those that survive the restructuring operation," said Dries.

HP is in a challenging position, though - in its fiscal Q3 ended July, HP revenues slipped 5 per cent to $29.7bn and it reported a loss of $8.9bn after an $8bn write down of its EDS service organisation.

The company faces pressures on all fronts, with a weakened PC business and a growing stock mountain in the channel - but Whitman insisted HP is "going to respond".

The company's fiscal Q4 numbers will be released next week. ®

*A European Works Council affords EU workers the right to information and consultation on the decisions of big multinationals (with over 1,000 employees in the EU) at European Union level. A company's EWC is made up of employees' representatives, which may include union employees.

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