Piecemeal Work

An investigation by Paul Moreira
First broadcast September 22, 2009 on France 5

No need for either compensation or a redundancy package. The departure is discreet, almost invisible. Yet, the number of those with insecure jobs is steadily increasing. One employee in five in France makes up this group. Journalist Paul Moreira spent time with some of these workers. Through testimonies and experts’ analyses, he reminds us of this silent and forgotten minority. Sentimental outpourings is not the point in this enquiry. These precarious workers are the first victims of the crisis. In employers’ speak manpower becomes a “variable adjustment”. Disguising the bitter reality of flexibility: employment growing insecurity. To legitimate this shift, employers suggest competitiveness is necessary to secure jobs.
Cost killing is the rule both for deeply damaged branches such as the car and steel industries, and for expanding businesses, like personal support services, for instance. Rather unusual thirty years ago, part-time or short-term contracts have become the norm. And over the years, permanent positions have become a virtually unobtainable prize for job security. How did we get there? The massive use of temporary workers came from the first restructuring of the steel industry in Lorraine, in the East of France, in the 1970s. As outsourcing became common, the number of single-day workers and part-time unemployed exploded.
Work methods of a new kind have triggered ever more labour laws breakings. And employers are not the only ones responsible. A representative of the national employement agency acknowledges the priority given to statistics: publish as many job offers as possible, no matter the type of contract. As a result, the employement market is fragmented. Desperate to find steady jobs, precarious workers are a never-ending manpower supply, ready to accept any work at any condition. Unions, isolated and sometimes without legal status, have little power to defend workers. Bringing a case to Labour Court remains difficult as employees fear retaliation or “black-listing”. After eight years of work and hundreds of short-term contracts with a motorway company, a former semi-unemployed worker is reluctant to go to court, “We would seem ungrateful”, he says. “I feel guilty because they did give us some work after all. And that’s something they’ll make the most of.”
Insecurity is exhausting these workers who constantly have to prove themselves and undermining their self-esteem and confidance. As 76 year-old Maurice, a former part-time worker, puts it: “Today’s employee is the descendant of the medieval serf. “