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The Temporary Workers Keeping France's Automobile Industry Alive

Workers at the Sochaux-Montbéliard Peugeot factory
Workers at the Sochaux-Montbéliard Peugeot factory
Florence Aubenas

MONTBELIARD - The meeting point is located just outside the city limits of Montbéliard, in eastern France, on the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant.

A few steps away is the front gate of the Peugeot car factory. Twenty people or so are waiting for the bus that will take them to the workshops of the morning shift. Clouds of jet-black and pink are stretching in the chilly sky. It must be around 4.30 a.m.

David is worrying as usual: “I bet the bus is going to be late and we’ll be blamed.” David is a young man with a unicorn tattooed on his arm, one energy drink in his hand and two dimples on each cheek. In the past, he has worked in the food industry, in parks and gardens maintenance, making plywood and sorting cherries. Each time, he was on a provisional contract.

This time he landed a job at Peugeot, or more accurately a four-month workshop job, found through a temporary employment agency recruiting workers for one of Peugeot’s subcontractors. Peugeot! He repeats that name, and cannot believe his own luck.

David’s father has worked there all his life. He has landed the same workshop, father and son working side by side, but separated by a chasm – the employment contract. “My father has a permanent contract,” says David. “All the older employees have permanent contracts,” a blond man interrupts loudly to cover the music coming out of his mobile phone.

All the newer workers have temporary contracts. They are young, except for a skinny tall man who must be around 50. Everyone in the group starts smiling, they are not angry about the situation. On the contrary, they show great affection for these fathers, and talk about them as if they were the children, the innocent creatures to be protected from a mutant world. Someone exclaims: “Can you imagine our parents on the dole like us?” Everyone laughs. The blond man replies brashly: “They wouldn’t manage.”

Two thirds of people receiving unemployment benefits in France are not just looking for a job anymore, but for a permanent contract. For employers, it’s the opposite: 49% of job offers are for temporary jobs, and 30% are fixed-term contracts.

This trend dates back to the early 2000s, when companies started adjusting to variation in production using temp work. At Peugeot’s Montbéliard plant, a third of the employees don’t have a permanent job.

A necessary evil

It is the same everywhere, often even worse. “There is no way I can feel good about this of course,” says Marine, who is in charge of one of the workshops. “But we stopped fighting it. We are just trying to do our job, that’s it.”

In the fast-food parking lot, David takes another gulp of his energy drink. “I hadn’t imagined that I would like factory work so much,” his dimples suddenly deepen. “It’s heaven.” Mobile phone screens indicate 4.45 a.m. The blond man is putting gel in his hair. “Do you think Peugeot will keep us?” When they arrived, a boss told them they would be there for a limited time, of course. They think it will be otherwise. There is a rumor going around that a handful of temporary workers got a permanent contract last year. They believe it. “It’s as silly as the lotto but we just think: maybe I’ll be the one!” says a short man wearing a jacket that says James Bond. He considers his chances. “I never take any sickies, the bosses like me. You have to be popular with the boss if you have ambition.”

In “James Bond’s” family, everyone is on a temporary contract, except his father of course. The other day they talked about it during dinner and his father said: “This issue needs to be discussed openly: No company can really say what their order book will look like in six months. Temp work is a shame, but maybe it is a necessary evil to save the rest…” Everyone laughed. “What’s up dad? You’re talking like you are on TV.” And then the mother: “There’s nothing to be ashamed of. Plenty of families have children on temporary contracts, or who are unemployed, even among engineers.”

Usually, they tell you on Friday that your contract will not be extended on Monday, and they wait until the last hour to deliver the certificate of service, needed for a new temporary contract, in order to keep workers motivated until the last moment. That is what happened to David’s brother. At the very end his boss told him. “Listen, you’re not fired. Firing a temporary worker is not called firing.” His brother came out of the office, crossed the workshop, hoping he would not come across anyone he knew. He was too embarrassed to say goodbye. He felt he had been there for years, and when he went out the door, he was surprised that he felt like crying.

The blond man interrupts, saying they cannot complain. People from a workers’ union came to tell him about his rights. He thought this was nice of them. He only believes in one thing: money. With his first three paychecks, he will buy a scooter, “because anything bigger is hard to buy.” A pale sun is slowly coming out above the fast-food restaurant, and the wind carries trash across the parking lot.

At the factory gates, the employee bus is already here. A man at the front is putting his lunchbox in his bag. In 1975, when he was hired, “working on an assembly-line was a synonym of ‘modern slavery,’ now they say we are ‘privileged.’” He ended up believing in it. “What was a fatality for us has become our children’s dream.” His son is right behind him, on the fast-food parking lot. He gets into the temporary workers’ bus, making the victory sign. The others follow him and do the same, while the blond guy films the scene with his phone. It is 4.58 a.m when the vehicle starts, heaving puddles left by the storm in dazzling sprays of water.

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