Migrant Lives

Refugees, An Unlikely Way To Boost The French Economy

French companies in need of workers are focusing on integration through employment.

At a supermarket in the southern French city of Toulouse
At a supermarket in the southern French city of Toulouse
Myriam Dubertrand

PARIS — Hassan used to be a butcher in Eritrea and Ahmad worked in a snack bar in Syria. Both had to flee their country, and wound up as refugees in France. Now each has found a job in sectors that are short on workers. Hassan works in a supermarket, and Ahmad in a fast food restaurant.

According to France's Union of Hotel Trades and Industries (UMIH), there are between 150,000 and 180,000 positions currently vacant in the hotel and restaurant industry. This sector is far from being the only one facing a labor shortage: supermarkets, construction, factories and even in the digital sector are busy searching for new hires. "The problem for companies is much more about finding employees than conquering new markets," says Guillaume Richard, CEO of the household services company Oui Care.

Why not use refugees to help address such worker shortages? "The refugee population has an interesting set of skills. They are in high demand among our members," says Jessica Gonzalez-Gris, employment and training delegate at Syntec Federation, which groups trade unions from the digital, engineering and consulting sectors. "And beyond the strictly economic aspect, companies are aware of the stakes of integrating this population for society as a whole."

After submitting their application, asylum seekers must wait six months to obtain a temporary work permit and they have a job offer or employment contract. The Asylum and Immigration Act of September 2018 reduced the waiting period from nine to six months. "We need to further reduce this period and simplify the procedure," says Oui Care's Richard.

Behavior at work differs from country to country.

To access this pool of candidates, companies seek the help of NGOs. "Employers, even if they are convinced, feel like they are taking a significant risk," says a recent report by Lab'Ho, the Adecco Group's Observatory for Manpower and Organizations.

Integration of employees in the company is a prime concern. "The expected behavior at work differs from country to country," says Gonzalez-Gris. "For instance, in some cultures, it is very inappropriate for an employee to ask questions to his manager, even if he has not understood the instructions correctly." There are of course also language barriers, with 36% of refugees unable to properly speak French, according to DARES, the statistics office of France's Ministry of Labor. Since last March, the number of hours for French classes has been doubled under the Republican Integration Contract (CIR), the contract signed by non-EU foreigners admitted to stay in France.

Refugee working in a supermarket — Source: Forco via Twitter

The government also made professional support easier through HOPE (an acronym for housing, orientation and pathways to employment), a program to promote the integration of refugees "At the end of the program, 70% of trainees have a job or choose to further their training," says Elise Bord-Levère, head of social innovation at the National Agency for Vocational Training for Adults (AFPA), one of the governmental agencies behind the program. In 2018, 1,000 refugees received training, and another 3,000 are expected to participate in the program by 2020.

Some 150 companies took part in the initiative, including such multinationals as Starbucks and McDonald's. Supermarket chain Carrefour integrated some 90 refugees under professionalization contracts as store sales employees, and nearly a third of them stayed in the company on fixed-term or permanent contracts. Another supermarket chain, Auchan, also took on about 20 refugees as store employees. "For us, it was a leap into the unknown and we had to use a lot of pedagogy with our teams at first," says Patrick Peysson, head of school and work-study relations at Auchan. "After that, there was an enthusiastic welcome. Our managers seem to have really appreciated the refugees' adaptability, as well as their great modesty about what they went through."

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!