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The 7000 staff of the Munich-based European Patent Office (including about 500 British nationals) are used to the perks that come with working for an international institution that sets it own labour laws.

These include exemption from national income taxes, expatriation allowances of up to a fifth of already generous salaries, numerous other benefits and six weeks annual leave. But they are also finding that their 'state-within-a-state' status leaves them without some of the protections usually available to ordinary workers.

On a number of days in November and December 2014, EPO staff went on strike in protest against the perceived dictatorial leanings of EPO president, Benoît Battistelli. A former boss of the French patent authority, Battistelli has, according to insiders, stuffed the upper management with French colleagues, including the wife of his top aide. He has curtailed staff rights to strike and to representation. Staff have limited access to redress in employment disputes – they can only go to an internal EPO committee, where the waiting time is currently four years, and in any case the internal committee can only issue opinions to Battistelli. Subsequent appeals can only be referred to the International Labour Organisation Administrative Tribunal, involving a further six-year wait.

The EPO is overseen by a supposedly independent administrative council, which in June 2014 extended Battistelli's mandate until 2018. One of the council participants is, er, Benoît Battistelli.

Morale is low and the efficient processing of patents is potentially threatened. In December, Battistelli further enraged the staff union when the administrative council suspended and threatened with dismissalon as yet unspecified charges a member of the EPO Board of Appeal, which deals with appeals against patent decisions. This might have been a step too far, because governments have started to get interested. UK minister of state Ed Vaizey has said the Board of Appeal should be “independent of the executive of the EPO, and be seen to be so,” and that provisions to ensure this happens should be considered by the EPO administrative council at its next meeting in March.

By Stephen Gardner.

This article was amended on 5 February 2015 to clarify the difference between the EPO internal appeals committee dealing with staff matters and the EPO Board of Appeal.

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