The sign on the window of Red Rhino, a popular barbecue restaurant in central Paris, has been up for a month: “Closed until further notice due to lack of staff”.
Bus and train services have been reduced in the tourist city of Lyon, due to a shortage of drivers. In the Loire Valley, tons of vegetables went unharvested over the summer as thousands of picker jobs went unfilled.
Economic activity has seen a hesitant recovery in France and Europe since the end of the COVID-19 lockdowns, but it has been dampened by the effects of the Russian war in Ukraine. Despite this, employers in many industries continue to be desperate to hire, and a number of businesses still cannot find the workers needed to operate at full capacity.
All this prompted France, Europe’s second largest economy, to seek various solutions. All politically inflammable.
President Emmanuel Macron’s government is offering a fast-track legalization process for irregular migrants who want to work in sectors facing staff shortages.
In addition, the government is preparing to tighten the French unemployment system, renowned for its generosity and the length of its benefits, in order to allow the unemployed to reintegrate more quickly into the labor market.
These plans are meeting resistance from different sides of the political spectrum. French far-right lawmakers, on the rise, say the growing influx of migrants must come under stricter control and that French nationals should be given priority for jobs.
The country’s powerful unions warn that moves to cut unemployment benefits risk pushing the unemployed into poverty.
Dual approach needed
For thousands of businesses that form the backbone of the economy, this dual approach has become necessary to help cope with what appears to be a permanent shift in work dynamics since the pandemic, as European workers change jobs en masse or decide not to return to heavy work that requires early or late hours of work for relatively low pay. In France, more than half a million people quit in the first three months of the year, the highest level in 15 years, according to the French statistics agency.
“Our society, after the pandemic, has a different outlook,” said Thierry Marx, a Michelin-starred French chef and president of the Union des métiers et des industries de l’hôtellerie, the influential trade association for restaurants and hotels in France.
People say to themselves: I don’t want to have a sacrificial relationship with work.
Thierry Marx, French chef
The shortage is greatest in construction, transport, nursing and agriculture, where nearly 400,000 jobs are vacant in France alone.
The hotel and restaurant sector is particularly hard hit, with a quarter of a million vacancies, mostly in manual jobs such as cleaning and waiters. This situation has resulted in additional pressure on restaurants and hotels, as tourism has made a strong comeback in Europe following the pandemic.
At the Hotel des Grands Boulevards in Paris’s Sentier district, the lobby was teeming with visitors on a recent day. But Olivier Bon, co-founder of Experimental Group, which owns the hotel and several others in Europe, said it had been difficult to recruit people to cope with the rebound, particularly in kitchen or service jobs. tables, which involve long working hours and capped salaries.
Many workers have disappeared. It’s a fight to find them.
Olivier Bon, co-founder of Experimental Group
To make the hotel and its restaurant more attractive, the company now offers more entry-level jobs, which can lead to careers in the industry, and has increased promotions. The group has increased wages modestly, in line with a new industry-accepted pay scale, and reduced long breaks in the workday at its restaurant, which lengthen employees’ shifts. The restaurant now shuts down service at 10:45 p.m. to improve worker schedules.
A matter of salary
Unions say the problem is not a shortage of workers, but low wages. If companies raised wages, unions say, they would find employees.
“People want to be paid decently and to be treated as more than just a working unit,” said Denis Gravouil, an official with the General Confederation of Labor (CGT), France’s second-largest trade union organization. “Employers will find workers if they change the conditions. »
Employers say the situation is more complicated.
In France, for example, where the unemployment rate is close to 7.1%, its lowest level for ten years, social charges are among the highest in Europe, which, according to companies, is holding back the hiring. Retraining programs have helped people move into new jobs in technology or manufacturing, but they have been less successful in attracting people to jobs as bus or truck drivers, home help or catering, where shortages are frequent.
And with overall unemployment in the euro zone nearing a record high, some economists believe labor shortages are unlikely to disappear despite the expected recession. “Countries and sectors where the labor market is particularly hot could remain tense,” warned Bert Colijn, senior eurozone economist at ING Bank.
France is betting that immigrant labor could help fill the gaps. A bill expected to be considered by parliament in the new year would create one-year renewable ‘in-demand skills’ residence permits for irregular migrants, who could apply for fast-track legal status without going through by employers.
For asylum seekers, the bill would also remove the ban on working for the first six months of their stay in the country.
France is not alone: Germany is preparing to modify its migration policy in order to attract people in the fields of medicine, technology and low-skilled jobs such as catering. The Netherlands has announced similar plans to attract more qualified immigrants for these types of positions.
In France, companies believe that a change is necessary, as the process of approving a work permit can take up to two years. Long work permit renewal deadlines can also leave around 20% of migrant workers in an irregular situation at any one time.
Limit shadow work
The government said the plan would also prevent unscrupulous employers from keeping workers in the shadows in order to exploit them with long hours and below-the-law wages, which officials say is particularly problematic in the sector. construction.
Nevertheless, President Macron must be tactful: the bill would notably also speed up the deportation of certain irregular immigrants, in particular those who have been convicted of crimes.
“It’s about better integrating and better expelling,” Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin told French radio. “We want people who work, not people who steal. »
Such remarks inflame Thierry Marx, who is the son of Polish immigrants and who is today at the head of a gastronomic empire in France, having made his way to chef stardom from an education troubled in a modest district of Paris. He said it was counterproductive to confuse the two issues.
“As soon as we talk about the word ‘immigration’, it becomes a political tool, which is dangerous,” he said.
A business leader does not seek to know if a person is an immigrant or not: he seeks a solution for the company.
Thierry Marx, French chef
Marx said the measure would benefit restaurant workers across France – including his own – whose work permits are expiring while renewal is pending.
“Being an immigrant is not synonymous with delinquency,” Marx added.
“Let’s be honest. If we were to take away the work immigrants do for just three days, this country would stop. But no one will dare to say that. They say, no it’s not true, the French need these jobs. »
Mr. Macron’s latest plan is to adjust the duration of unemployment benefits according to the unemployment rate in France: when it falls below 9%, the duration of compensation would be reduced by 25%, with a minimum of six months. An unemployed person who would have been entitled to 12 months of unemployment benefits, for example, will only have nine. People over 55, who can get up to three years, would see their benefits reduced by up to nine months.
Unions say the measure risks pushing more people into poverty by reducing the duration of benefits and forcing the unemployed to accept any job, including work that does not match their skills.
“This government has only one priority: hitting workers, forcing them to accept precarious jobs, because that is one of the objectives of the reform, and saving money is a measure totally favorable to employers”, said Gravouil, of the CGT union.
“But it is not by reducing unemployment benefits that we will fill the jobs,” he added.
This article was originally published in the New York Times.