Dark days in Disneyland

In a Magical Kingdom somewhere between a place where you wish upon a star and dreams come true, Disney heroes and heroines live in fairytales that are, happily, never ending.

This is the introductory promise of the official website of Disneyland Paris, the most-visited tourist site in Europe. More than 15.4 million people flocked to the park last year, a new record. For most of them, the promise was fulfilled.

For many of the 14,500 people who work at the site, 30km east of Paris, there is a less magical side to the Kingdom.

"We sell smiles and the happiness of children," said Hervé Saumade, 37, a maintenance man and union activist at the park. "But in the past few years, a new management approach has made our working lives intolerable."

Since the beginning of the year, two employees have committed suicide.

One of them, Franck, a cook for 10 years, killed himself on the day he was supposed to return to the park after a long period of sickness.

According to his father-in-law, Pierre-Louis Neut, he scratched a message on the wall of his home which read: "Je ne veux pas retourner chez Mickey" [I don't want to work for Mickey any more].

Neut says Franck was depressed by staff cuts and a policy switch away from "freshly-made food" to frozen produce.

The other employee, also a cook, killed himself in February after what one trade union, Force Ouvrière, insists was "humiliating" treatment at work.

A Disney staff and management health committee investigation has found no evidence of work harassment.

The moderate unions accuse Force Ouvrière of "exploiting" the two deaths to win support in delegate elections this year. But even the moderate unions insist that something has gone desperately wrong.

Over the past five or six years, a younger, mostly French, top management has taken over at Eurodisney. The number of jobs in restaurants and hotels has been sharply reduced, unions say. The number of visitors - attracted by cut-price deals - has increased. Seasonal workers' numbers have been slashed. A tier of middle management has been removed, leaving lower-level employees feeling undervalued and ignored.

Longer hours and six-day weeks are frequently demanded of everyone. The number of industrial accidents has risen to 1500 a year, a higher rate than in the accident-prone building trade.

The moderate CFTC trade union federation, which has the widest support among employees, sent the president of Eurodisney, Philippe Gas, an excoriating open letter, urging him to "wake up".

"Prozac factories will never go bankrupt given the incalculable number of your employees who use their products," the letter said.

The company has agreed to look again at its working practices.

The official management-employee delegate committee at Disneyland Paris, has agreed to hold a "social audit" of working conditions and worker satisfaction. In the meantime, access by employees to psychological help will be improved.

Six out of the seven Disney unions have agreed to co-operate with the "social audit" of conditions at the park. Only the militant, but little supported, Force Ouvrière has refused.

The moderate unions - though neither "wishing on a star" nor expecting all their "dreams to come true" - hope that the audit will add a happier next chapter to the Disneyland fairytale.

- INDEPENDENT

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