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European Patent Office staff rep blames prez for 'slipping quality'

Overseers told of low morale, poor performance and even suicides

By Kieren McCarthy, 11 Oct 2017

Fed up with years of willful ignorance, staff at the European Patent Office publicly called out their president in front of the organization's overseeing body.

Meeting at the EPO's headquarters in Munich this week, the organization's Administrative Council – made up of officials from 38 European nations – heard briefly from the staff representative.

But rather than present the usual diplomatically worded update, the rep instead tore into office president Benoit Battistelli and his years-long campaign against his own employees – something that is known euphemistically as "social dialogue" within the EPO.

"I would like to thank the delegations who emphasized the importance of social dialogue," the representative told the assembled representatives according to several sources. "There is no social dialogue in the activity report presented by the president. There has been none. No consensus is sought. The consultation of the employees is no longer there."

The rep then went on to reiterate the same issue that was raised during the previous meeting of the Administrative Council, and which resulted in behind-the-scenes fury from EPO management: slipping patent quality.

"The president has reported on the increase in production," the rep said. "Over the last years we have reached 40 to 50 per cent. Unfortunately, this has been accompanied by a decline in quality. This has been reported to us not only by our colleagues, but also by external people."

Taboo

And then, raising the stakes further, the rep raised a taboo topic that has most upset staff in recent years: the deaths of their colleagues from work-related stress.

"Psycho-social risks are rising," the rep noted. "Only ten days ago, the Dutch police had to come into the [EPO's Netherlands offices] to prevent a seventh suicide. The staff representative wishes the social dialogue. We would like to see a new President who is committed to social dialogue."

The intervention comes at an extraordinary time for the organization: its former chairman, who was a fervent supporter of Battistelli, unexpectedly quit in July and was replaced at the meeting with critic Christoph Ernst.

More significantly, a new president for the organization – António Campinos – was chosen. Campinos will take over from Battistelli on July 1, 2018 after Battistelli's term comes to an end.

Clearly, the staff felt now was the time to try to force a cultural change on the organization, and the plea from the staff rep was backed up by yet another demonstration by EPO staff outside its headquarters.

A flyer advertising the demo listed no less than 14 reasons why people should join the protest, including the dismissal of three staff representatives by Battistelli, the blatant distortion of the organization's appeals systems (which have been repeatedly criticized by national parliaments and the International Labor Organization), "ever-increasing production targets", and unfair "continuous reforms."

Contempt

True to form, Battistelli did not allow contempt from his own staff, or the occasion of being formally replaced, to stop him for pushing yet more "reforms" that appear designed solely to punish those that have resisted his efforts.

In a new document [PDF] put forward by EPO management which it claims will "increase the flexibility of the employment structure", Battistelli asks for a range of changes, most focused on staff, including:

  • Removing staff representatives from hiring committees.
  • An end to permanent contracts, requiring all staff to be re-hired after five years.
  • An end to "home leave" for staff who moved from another European country to work for the EPO (staff who move more than 900 kilometres are currently allowed an additional 10 days holiday every two years).
  • More changes to staff pensions: Battistelli has used staff pensions and a threat to remove them to coerce staff in the past

Meanwhile, the EPO is being investigated by the European Court of Human Rights for how it has treated staff. The EPO claims it is not beholden to the laws of the countries in which it is based – Germany, Austria, Belgium, and the Netherlands – because of its status as an international organization.

And the long-planned Unitary Patent Court (UPC) is on hold in part because reforms imposed by Battistelli that have undermined the EPO's independence. ®

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