European World Online employees protest

Italy’s Tiscali SpA is having a tough time merging its operations with the local World Online NV businesses. Employees at World Online Belgium have started a protest that they are hoping will spread to other countries.

The takeover of World Online (WOL) by Tiscali was completed in December. Operations of both ISPs (Internet service providers) overlap in some countries. Tiscali, based in Cagliari, is merging those local businesses, sparking protest at World Online in Belgium. The 85 workers went on strike on Monday and say colleagues in France, Spain and Switzerland might follow their lead.

“Tiscali is conducting an ethnic cleansing throughout Europe,” said Tom Garcia, portal manager at World Online Belgium and one of the protest leaders. He cited a joke going around the company. “At the head office they ask, with an Italian accent, “do you speak English?” If yes “You’re fired” follows.”

In Belgium, Garcia said, Tiscali intends to lay off at least 45 of the WOL staff, or 53 per cent of the workforce. At the Tiscali branch in Brussels, which currently employs 45 people, no jobs will be cut.

“Tiscali’s head office has calculated that the merged company in Belgium should have approximately 80 staff to be economically remunerative,” Garcia said. The company has set a target to break-even in Belgium in Q4 2001.

Negotiations between the united unions and company management on a social plan to make the layoffs “somewhat bearable” started on Jan. 29, said Garcia. “Initially the talks looked promising, but in the latest meeting management denied to follow the demands of the unions,” Garcia said.

WOL’s Belgian Web site ( has been taken over by its staff. The site is no longer being updated with its original content, but offers information on the strike, including a live video feed.

“Everybody came to work in nightclothes on Thursday to symbolize that Tiscali wants to quietly put us to sleep,” Garcia said.

Additionally technical support staff is only working office hours, instead of the regular prolonged hours. WOL Belgium has about 250,000 customers, Garcia said.

The Tiscali – WOL merger has led to cutbacks across Europe. In the Netherlands, WOL’s home country, 245 jobs were slashed. A measure the company’s founder Nina Brink in interviews has described as “revolting and barbaric.” Brink, herself the subject of a large controversy, had already left the company at the time.

In Switzerland, all 63 WOL staffers will be made redundant, a source within WOL Switzerland confirmed. The source described the situation in the Swiss office as “tense” and said the staff is likely to protest the decision. Workers were informed of the cuts on Feb. 13.

“In Spain it is starting to rumble and in France there is total chaos. Our protest will inspire others,” said Garcia, noting that Tiscali has also acquired French ISP Liberty Surf Group SA. Founder and Chairman Pierre Besnainou of Liberty Surf have already left the company.

An employee at WOL in France wouldn’t describe the situation at the company as chaotic, but said staff is “worried about losing their jobs.” According to the employee WOL has about 180 employees in France. Another employee, working in the business department said: “everybody is anxiously awaiting news from the head office in Italy.”

Other senior executives coming from acquired businesses have left Tiscali. Most notable – after Besnainou’s resignation – is the departure of Jim Kinsella, former chief executive of WOL and Tiscali. Kinsella cited disagreements between him and Tiscali’s Chairman Renato Soru as the reason for his leaving. Soru is now the company head.

Tiscali couldn’t be reached for comment.

Tiscali in Cagliari, Italy, can be reached at World Online Belgium in Antwerp can be reached at