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Filigranes boss to step aside after complaints of harassment at famous bookstore
After 48 employees or ex-employees of the Filigranes bookstore in Brussels filed official complaints of moral and sexual harassment with the social insurance fund Securex, the store’s founder Marc Filipson has announced that he will “step aside” to allow a new manager to take control.
In a letter to colleagues and the "friends of Filigranes" released on Sunday, Filipson said the complaints came as “a surprise", adding "I did not realise that my attitude could cause so much suffering to some, and I am absolutely sorry for that, although this will not be enough to restore trust."
Filipson also announced the implementation of a series of "concrete measures", starting with "a step aside" on his part, and the appointment of a new person to the management of the bookstore. "In the next few days, a meeting will take place between the board of directors and the members of staff to hear their grievances," he wrote.
According to Filipson, the complaint procedure filed with Securex will make it possible to establish "better practices and more respect in the management of human resources" within the bookstore, on various subjects such as work on Sundays, holidays or surveillance.
He added that he would undergo "psycho-therapeutic work" to "get rid of his bad habits".
The Filigranes bookshop on Avenue des Arts in Brussels has long been a paradise for book lovers but behind the façade, the list of complaints and testimonies reveals the famous store to have been a darker place for some employees.
"At first, everything was going well between him (Filipson) and me,” one former employee was quoted as saying in a report by the BX1 television channel. “And then, his behaviour changed when with other employees, we filed a complaint about working conditions and regulations. I was insulted, humiliated in front of customers. One day, I told him that as employees we had to abide by the work regulations, but he, as an employer, also had to abide by the law. Two days later, I arrived at work at 8am and at 8.20am I was out with my belongings because I had been fired. It was hyperviolent. After five years, overnight, I was no longer competent for my position as department head."
She added that she still dreamed of her interactions with Filipson some five years after being abruptly fired and was still worried about the repercussions. “Marc Filipson wrote to my next employers telling them not to work with me. He prevented other employees of his bookstore from talking to me. Today, I am a comic book sales representative, and I still cannot enter Filigranes."
Other employees said that they left the bookstore because of burnout, harassment or working conditions. They complain about not being paid for their overtime, having to participate in charity evenings, last-minute schedule changes and the lack of clear instructions in writing, with many examples showing clear breaches of labour laws.
There are also stories of angry interactions with the boss, insults, intimidation, inconsistency in the instructions, remarks concerning the dress or physique of employees, and unwanted physical contact.
Throughout the complaints is a common thread: the behaviour of Marc Filipson. "He is a manipulator who knows very well which buttons to press to make people crack,” one former employer wrote.
"As soon as we wanted to take the initiative, he told us to go for it and then he yelled at us, as if we had done something wrong,” said another. “The more I worked, the worse things got, according to him. He always tried to divide the teams by asking us to denounce our colleagues. On the same day, he may ask you to give him a hug and then yell at you for no reason."
“When I went to see my therapist, she sent me to a GP and a psychiatrist to get a a certificate for medical leave,” said another. “The psychiatrist told me that she had already had a lot of Filigranes workers reporting the same facts. My doctor wrote a certificate for Filigranes saying that this job was dangerous for my mental health, that I should not go back."
"For months, I was only talking about Marc,” added another former employee. “I dreamed of him. My alcohol consumption was increasing. I was in denial until the day I was collapsed from burnout. Too often, people who leave no longer have the strength to take legal action. They just want to never hear from this company again. But I wanted it to stop so I made the complaint. This management must change."
Some former or current staff members also report remarks about physical and sexual harassment. "Marc Filipson often goes to the cash register and puts his hand on the cashiers' buttocks,” one complainant said. “He has a problem. We have to tell our young people to be careful and not to be alone with him."
Another claims that Filipson would touch him inappropriately “as a joke” and when he asked him to stop doing it, he was given a handful of €100 notes “for my holiday”. “It was clear he was trying to buy my silence,” the former employee said. He did not make a complaint at the time but has since done so in a bid to protect others.
Filipson, through his lawyers, has denied that there was any moral or sexual harassment at Filigranes.
A number of complaints refer to a change in attitude and behaviour in the store around the time in 2016 when employees expressed their desire to change their joint committee status from the 201 – which offer workers’ protection and rights specific to small retail businesses, to 311 which relates to large shops. This change would lead to wage increases as well as the granting of extra-legal benefits.
"It cost him money and it became more difficult for him," says one former employee. As Filigranes was at fault, some employees filed a complaint to receive their salary difference retroactively. “We should have union representation, but there was none."
Several attempts to establish union representation in the company failed. For it to exist, 25% of the staff must be unionised, but between the high turnover of staff and the fear of those who remained, the rate was not reached. In January 2020, a new attempt was launched, and elections should have been held. But due to the first coronavirus lockdown, no candidate was declared in time. Discussions are still ongoing with the unions and the management of Filigranes to try to find a solution.
The board of directors have so far defended Marc Filipson. "It is thanks to his extraordinary personality and extraordinary vision that Filigranes is what it is today, namely one of the largest bookstores in Europe," reads the Board’s response sent to Securex.
“Vis-à-vis the workers, he is clearly a demanding boss, but his remarks are often perfectly justified. His outspokenness and exuberant personality, however, sometimes lead him not to behave in the required way, something which he is aware that he must work on. It was therefore particularly shocking to read that workers had reported the existence of insults, threats or humiliations, sexist, or racist remarks. Mr Filipson is a very open, tolerant person and does not recognise himself at all in these reproaches."
The Board of Directors added that it saw a need for working relationships to be repaired and communication channels to be opened up between management and staff. It has also asked Securex to carry out a risk analysis on the well-being of workers.