04.16.16

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European Patent Office and Human Rights Violations: Article Translation Into English Reveals Upcoming Lawsuit Against the EPO Over Institutional Harassment

Posted in Europe, Patents at 1:25 am by Dr. Roy Schestowitz

European Patent Office and Human Rights Violations

Summary: Liesbeth Zegveld, a lawyer who represents dismissed union leaders and also a suspended judge, declares intent to launch legal action against the European Patent Office

THE EPO‘s management has received a lot of negative publicity, which is very much deserved.

This one 4-page article [PDF] about the EPO (“EOB: Bastion van tirannie en angst” from Praktijkblad Ondernemingsraad) was published a few days ago. A person from the Netherlands, Marco, kindly translated this for us (several people offered help, but Marco was first). “I applaud your endeavor,” he wrote. “Feel free to use my small contribution as you see fit.”

Having read it fully and highlighted in yellow bits that are new to most readers, we now present the full thing as text. Marco asked us to “note that this was published some months ago, and the article also mentions a future meeting which has since then occurred.”

Institutional bullying and institutional harassment are going to cause turmoil. There is legal action from SUEPO apparently; that’s the first time we really learn about such plans. Details below.

Human rights violations by the European Patent Office

‘Bastion of fear and tyranny’

Employee participation is a mockery, critical trade unionists are made redundant, multiple suicides.
The atmosphere at the European Patent Office has been severely poisoned.
The director considers himself above human rights.

‘Employees of the European Patent Office work in a bastion of fear and tyranny,’ says an anonymous source of the staff representation (PVT) of the Rijswijk establishment (2,700 employees) of the European Patent Office (EPO).
The organisation, also with offices in Berlin, Munich and Vienna, is responsible for protecting the rights of inventors in the European Union.
Our source would rather have his name not mentioned. ‘Because,’ he stresses, ‘talking to the outside world about internal affairs could cost you your job. CEO Benoît Battistelli expects absolute loyalty.’

‘Whether we have a say? Do not make me laugh. The staff representation is only consulted to say yes or no to a document. The management board doesn’t appreciate informed opinions or alternative proposals of the PVT.’
‘The management also decides whether we can meet with our members. For that, we need to apply three days in advance and hand in a list of topics.’
‘Moreover, sending an e-mail to all employees is forbidden. When sending to more than fifty email addresses the system automatically blocks the message.’
‘Outspoken employees are not appreciated and people are not treated as human beings. An all-time low was when a colleague jumped from the seventh floor in Rijswijk during 2013.’

That is not the only suicide, another member of the Rijswijk branch ended his life on the last day of his vacation. Moreover, the trade union Suepo alarmed the EPO mid-2015 regarding the suicides of three employees of the head office in Munich.
That makes a total of five cases of suicide in three years, according to the union because of poisonous working conditions.

Sun King

[Due to the legal immunity of EPO, Battistelli can behave like a "Sun King with an own court ']

As an intergovernmental organisation, formed by 38 supervisional member states, the EPO enjoys legal immunity. Because of this legal immunity, it can largely ignore national legislation and EU laws in countries where EPO offices are located.
Precisely therein lies, according to the prevailing view among employees, largely the cause of the “reign of terror” of the French CEO Battistelli: ‘He can simply continue his behavior as “Sun King with an own court”.’

In 2015, the court in The Hague ruled that the EPO violates human rights in a case that lawyer Liesbeth Zegveld, specialized in human rights, filed on behalf of Suepo. The court ruled that the hindrance of the union in its work outweighs its legal immunity.

‘That the EPO has appealed against that judgment,’ Zegveld says, ‘illustrates once more the arrogance of the organization.’
‘It considers itself above the law and proceeds to abusing its legal immunity. I have not previously had a case with such an aggressive opponent.’

Since the Hague judgment, Zegveld observes a tougher stance from Battistelli against directors of Suepo, who are often also active as EPO employees. Two of them have been told to resign. Amongst them the Dutch president of the union Elizabeth Hardon, whose pension has been cut by 20 percent, and the treasurer of the association.
Hardon has now found herself to be the subject of an internal investigation, which is blatantly against the rules of the EPO. Five other active union members, of whom three in Rijswijk, have been suspended pending an upcoming investigation. One of them has also been put back eight steps in salary.

Witch Hunt

Zegveld: ‘This is a witch hunt to silence the union and critical employees. They are addressed on dubious trivialities likely not serious enough to have someone dismissed or his pension reduced.’
Battistelli defended himself in the Financieele Dagblad in which he stated that there is an ‘orchestrated campaign’ to destabilize the organization.
‘That purely trade union and staff representatives are investigated is “pure coincidence”.’

Apart from the dismissal of trade union officials Zegveld is preparing a lawsuit against the EPO for harassment.
‘As a union official and employee of the EPO, according to Battistelli’s guidelines, you cannot tell your own members that they are being investigated. While it is the task of the union to be a critical voice and to inform members.’

‘If there is an investigation against you,’ agrees our anonymous source at the PVT, ‘you may not inform a colleague. So you limit yourself to: “I was away and I may not tell you why”. Then your colleague knows enough. That, while the director has the right to disclose to the media that there are running investigations against trade unionists.’

Subjects investigated by the commission of disciplinary investigation have a right to assistance by a member of the PVT.
‘During the hearing, employees are often confronted with acts they had nothing to do with. Their guilt is already a foregone conclusion. “Stasi Practices,” according to colleagues from Eastern Europe working at the EPO.’

Increased Workload

‘The staff of the EPO,’ continues the anonymous trade union member, ‘are highly educated people who are frustrated that they get not to decide the working conditions.’
‘The top of the EPO wants to promote more competition between employees. They have implemented a new remuneration system. Your supervisor now determines what salary increase you will get; he can also unilaterally change employment conditions.’
‘Meanwhile your supervisor will often overload you with mountains of work. The workload in some units has increased by 30 percent. Of course, now many go into early retirement, or call in sick. Those who call in sick, and take a walk or ride a the bike are in violation and risk disciplinary action.’
‘The human resource department, which supposedly should ensure reintegration, is itself understaffed and overworked. Preventive measures against absenteeism are modest compared with repressive sanctions imposed.’
‘Working conditions are a hard topic to address. The PVT tries to, but the standard response is often that such a topic should be discussed “in a different context,” at the central level. Then you never hear anything about it anymore.’

A proposal by the PVT for a staff risk assessment was buried by the EPO. The Dutch labour inspectorate is not allowed to enter the building because of the legal immunity of the EPO.
‘The PVT also called for an investigation into a connection between the working environment and suicides. But the management has never responded to that.’
Battistelli replied in an interview with the NRC Handelsblad, and describes the suicides as “personal tragedies without evidence of a relationship with the agency.”
The labour inspectorate says it knows of the complaints via the media and other sources. ‘But we lack the powers to act,’ according to a spokesman.
‘We may not enter the EPO like we may not enter an embassy. We give no judgment on possible wrongdoing. After all, we cannot investigate.’
Indeed, no investigation of how an employee on Dutch territory chose to to jump out of a deadly trap from the seventh floor during working hours.

Protest

However, the patent examiners may organize demonstrations on Dutch territory. And at the end of January in Rijswijk, they massively chose to do so in protest against the dismissal of two colleagues because of their union activities and to restore a third employee to his former position.
Member of Parliament John Kerstens walked amongst the demonstrators and filed a motion in which he asked the cabinet “to ensure normal working conditions and respect for human rights of workers.” State Secretary Martijn van Dam then announced an “independent research” on the working conditions at the EPO.

‘The government has remarkably long stayed aloof regarding the patent office,’ notes Liesbeth Zegveld. ‘But it is responsible that on its territory human rights are respected. The Dutch state can, if no action is taken, expect an indictment by Suepo.’
‘On the other hand, I also noticed that the cabinet is growing impatient with the continuing full scale human rights violations by the EPO, such as the right to collective bargaining, right to assembly, and the right to freedom of expression.’
‘Of course, this apart from the fact that individual rights such as work and pensions are harmed and workers are apparently driven to suicide.’

The Dane Chairman Jesper Kongstad of the Administrative Council of the patent organization has asked the 38 participating countries to have the disciplinary actions by the EPO investigated by an independent commission.
Battistelli rejected the proposal immediately. However, it seems unlikely that the EPO countries will vote against the proposal by Kongstad during its mid-March meeting. In which case, it seems that the days of Battistelli are numbered.

The staff representation meanwhile remains active, awaiting better times.
‘The whole situation should normalize naturally, as in every democratic country. The PVT could, of course, shut itself down due to current lack of participation. But then it immediately completely loses the communication with, and the feedback of, the supporters.
‘Now the PVT can still collect files and help out employees. The PVT may also discretely publish on the intranet; if you click five, six times you will find their pages.’
‘Many things that the PVT does are also tasks of the human resource department. But they see the staff and their representatives as the enemy. No doubt since the head of the department is an appointed personal friend of Battistelli.’

The burden of work is a subject addressed in the following bit of text, sent to us not too long ago:

Patent Administration under pressure

Examiners are not the only ones whom the Office thinks it can mostly replace by computers: the same applies – for a long time already – to formalities officers. While the number of applications keeps going up, the number of formalities officers (but not the number of managers) keeps going down. The promised IT support is not making up for the difference. On the contrary: the continuous changes in the procedures and in the programs are making things worse for staff. And with the introduction of the “hubs” staff in Patent Administration are now left to themselves to sort out how to distribute too much work among too few people. The resulting stress is not good for staff health. To counter the effect, in Patent Administration a high “presence at work” remains a prerequisite for a bonus. There is another problem coming up. The recruitment stop for Patent Administration has predictably led to aging of the existing population, more so since in the initial phase the Office also let go of younger recruits who had been hired on contract. With the atmosphere in the Office deteriorating older colleagues who can afford to do so retire. The work in Patent Administration is complex and very diverse. Whereas novelty, inventive step and sufficiency of disclosure remain the same throughout search, examination and opposition, the administrative procedures are very different. The same applies for PCT, versus EP and soon the unitary patent. No single formalities officer can know it all: the total knowledge is spread over a considerable number of people. If the Office doesn’t start recruiting and training new formalities officers soon the current brain-drain may result in knowledge being lost.

This serves to reaffirm if not confirm what we already heard from other sources. Basically, the ongoing brain drain [1, 2, 3, 4] and inability to recruit replacements quickly enough (especially with the damaged reputation of the EPO) leaves people in Patent Administration overworked. Some people have approached us privately to highlight serious administrative issues from the customer’s side. People are far from happy (to say the least!) with the service and if only Battistelli treated his staff with respect and dignity, all this mess would not be the new reality at the Office. Battistelli has truly destroyed the EPO by making the atmosphere poisonous.

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