Ex-China staffers sue GSK for 'illegal' termination amid bribery scandal

As part of GlaxoSmithKline's ($GSK) post-bribery-scandal crackdown in China, it has tossed out employees whose expenses were "not compliant with company regulation." But now, three former employees say they were fired illegally--and they're fighting back in court.

The trio demands compensation--two months' pay for each year of their GSK employment--claiming the pharma giant illegally dismissed them in April and May, Reuters reports. According to one plaintiff, GSK encouraged some China employees to resign and threatened others with contract terminations and bad references.

Like some of their peers, the three plaintiffs are also seeking reimbursement for bribes their managers allegedly instructed them to pay to doctors and hospital staff. In some cases, those ran up past 200,000 yuan, or $32,200, Liu Feng, the lawyer representing them, told the news service.

"The workers think the company is very dishonest and its attitude abominable," the lawyer said. "They are very dissatisfied with the company's actions."

A GSK spokesman told Reuters the company couldn't comment on individual cases, but that it has taken disciplinary action after thorough review where it's found expense fraud issues.

Any compensation GSK could be forced to pay would be relatively small, the news service notes. Salaries are much lower in China than in the U.S. or Europe, but it's an extra headache for the British pharma giant, whose former China head is already facing potential prison time for allegedly masterminding a $489 million scheme.

And this could just be the beginning. A similar case from an ex-Glaxo salesperson was heard in May, and the plaintiff told Reuters a decision would be issued soon. The GSK spokesman said a "single digit" number of laid-off workers had brought cases, and Liu told the news service about two dozen others are waiting to see the outcome of the current cases before filing their own.

The legal action follows protests from disgruntled staffers seeking reimbursement for the bribes they say higher-ups instructed them to pay. A group of 25 representatives last month raised a banner at GSK's Shanghai headquarters reading, "Return my hard-earned money."

And like much of the scandal and its fallout, those protests haven't been private, adding to the beating Glaxo's image--and top line--has taken in the country. The layoffs and indictments--and most recently, the surfacing of a secret sex tape of Reilly, sent to the company's top execs--continue to pummel pharma and vaccine sales. GSK's China revenue still hasn't returned to prescandal levels, after plunging 30% last summer.

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Special Reports: Top 10 drugmakers in emerging markets - GSK | Top 10 pharma companies by 2013 revenue - GSK

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