EPO: New Employment Rules Roil Staff; Management Responds On Demand For More Productivity 27/11/2017 by Dugie Standeford for Intellectual Property Watch Leave a Comment Share this:Click to share on Twitter (Opens in new window)Click to share on LinkedIn (Opens in new window)Click to share on Facebook (Opens in new window)Click to email this to a friend (Opens in new window)Click to print (Opens in new window)Outgoing European Patent Office President Benoȋt Battistelli has proposed a new “employment framework” that includes fixed-term contracts for patent examiners, reigniting anger among staff members already in a tense relationship with management. There is also concern that Battistelli’s apparent push – which the EPO denies – for more products (defined as prior art searches and proposals for patent grants) is hurting patent quality. [story clarified] The EPO buildings, Munich Battistelli has floated a series of changes to staff working conditions in recent years which are putting employees under tremendous pressure and forcing them to cut corners, one source close to the Staff Union of the EPO (SUEPO) said in an interview. With Battistelli pushing for the highest-ever production targets the office has ever seen – he is said to have a target of 415,000 products [clarified] this year — examiners are now being forced to work even faster, he said. Examiners are getting feedback from patent applicants and patent professionals unhappy with their work, but do not dare to share them with their hierarchy for fear of negative consequences, the source said. Fear is a “real factor,” as numerous staff members are being investigated and disciplined, he said. Another problem is that training for new examiners has decreased in quality compared with 10 years ago, the source said. The past system was based on seeking to recruit the very best applicants with the highest skills for this specific job, who speak several languages and have a desire to serve the public, he said. New recruits are placed on time-limited contracts that require them to learn their jobs in one year, and are given production targets that are far too high for newcomers so soon after recruitment, he said. Examiners who aren’t fully trained in the need for thorough prior art searches can’t do them properly, he said, adding that makes patent quality the “elephant in the room.” The chronic state of pressure means staff members feel unwell; and staff surveys organised by the employee representatives and a consultant in the field of psycho-social risks at work show significant deterioration in morale and health, said the source. EPO Denies Targets, Poor Patent Quality “There is no target for granting 415.000 European patents in 2017,” an EPO spokesman emailed Intellectual Property Watch. SUEPO, nevertheless, said in a 21 November message to members that, “The official and rather ambitious target of 400,000 ‘products’ initially set for 2017 should be widely surpassed by more than 10,000 (according to DG1 counter). Apparently, this is not enough for the top management, who is requesting an ‘extra push’ from examiners, the intention being to each a new, unofficial, moving target of 415,000 products (or more?).” The EPO also denied that patent quality is suffering. “There is no indication whatsoever that an improvement in productivity has resulted in a lower quality of products and services delivered by our examiners,” said the spokesman. To the contrary, “all objective facts and direct feedbacks from the users point an improvement in quality, he said, citing a 2016 quality report (available here: http://www.epo.org/footer/search.html?search=quality+report+2016&ud=1&output=xml_no_dtd&oe=UTF-8&ie=UTF-8&client=EN_rebrush&proxystylesheet=EN_rebrush&site=default_collection&q=quality+report+2016 Fixed-Term Contract Proposal “Cynical” The proposed new employment framework has drawn fire from examiners’ unions. The latest criticism came in a 23 November letter from the European Public Service Union (EPSU) to Christoph Ernst, who chairs the Administrative Council (AC) which governs the EPO. Recruiting staff on the basis of fixed-term contracts “is again a proposal that is not discussed and negotiated with the unions” and it would increase “precariousness, insecurity and has negative consequences for the well-bring of workers,” wrote EPSU General Secretary Jan Willem Goudriaan. He urged the AC, which meets on 13-14 December, not to adopt the new system. “Introducing such a comprehensive reform just before the new Director Mr. Campinos takes office smells of bad administration, and frankly of cynicism,” said EPSU. It also risks setting the new chief up to fail at having a “proper social dialogue” with staff, it said. European Union Intellectual Property Office head Antonio Campinos has been appointed to take over as EPO director in July 2018. The EPO Central Staff Committee charged in a 9 November letter that the “timing of tabling the proposal as well as the time-pressure applied to consultation and implementation are clearly at deviance with” the AC’s renewed commitment to strengthening social dialogue at the Office.” The new framework “deserves a meaningful consultation process of all relevant EPO bodies,” the CSC said. It urged officials to create a working group on modernising the employment framework with a view to publishing a report in June 2018. The Union Syndicale Fédérale complained in a 20 October letter to the AC that “precariousness of employment entails disastrous consequences on the well-being and health of workers and their families. USF President Bernd Loescher urged the AC not to take any action without a thorough discussion with all stakeholders. The issue of fixed-term contracts “is very simple,” said the EPO spokesman. Because of an internal rule limiting the use of contract staff, 97 percent of staff are permanently employed, an “unique situation in comparison with similar institutions” such as the World Intellectual Property Organization and EU Intellectual Property Office, which have 30-40 percent of staff under contract, he said. The idea of the approach is “basically to provide more flexibility of permanent status and will improve the rights benefiting the contractors compared with the current situation,” said the spokesman. This change was recommended in a 2016 Deloitte study on the EPO’s long-term financial health, he said. “The Office proposes to hold an orientation debate” with AC in December, he added. New President’s Approach Unknown Campinos is still many months from taking office. In a 23 October letter to Campinos (available here), USF said it and its affiliated SUEPO branches are “looking forward to substantial improvements especially on social dialogue, rule-of-law and employment stability issues during your mandate.” In a 3 November response (also available on Kluwer Patent Blog), Campinos wrote: “In the different managerial positions on my career path, and especially in my current tenure as Executive Director of the European Union Intellectual Property Office, I have always prioritised human resources matters and have developed an open and fruitful relationship with the representatives of the staff and their associations. In this sense, I look forward to continuing the cooperation between the EPO and the Union Syndicale Fédérale once I take up my duties as president of the European Patent Office next year.” EPSU’s Goudriaan said he read Campinos’ statement “as a start of a more constructive dialogue in which the issues that have been raised by the staff and their union can be addressed and dealt with. There are quite a few and you have inherited a rather unfortunate situation which included a hostile approach towards the union and its delegates.” Separately, a source called patentlyobvious reported over the weekend that Battistelli and his vice-president are rumoured to have lost a private prosecution case for alleged insult and defamation filed against an EPO staff member, and that the Munich Public Prosecutor may now be considering an investigation of the EPO officials. This could not be confirmed by press time. 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