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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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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