di Danilo Ceccarelli

What with illegal recruitment, with 90 percent of riders in Paris working with subcontracted accounts, hiring discriminations that create a rift between the city centre and the suburbs, and a crowd of NEETs, who have no job and attend no training courses, the labour market in France’s capital city is pursuing new conditions for equality and inclusion.

In the Paris jungle

“It is the dream of each rider to be hired with a regular contract.”

In front of the Pompidou centre, the renowned museum of modern art in Paris, Akim (a fictitious name, author’s note) speaks without losing sight of his bicycle, parked beside those of his colleagues during a break between rides. “You know, they often steal them here, this is why many of us go for bike sharing,” he explains, while a group of tourists stop to take a photo of the famous façade of the Pompidou centre designed by Renzo Piano.

Akim, 30, came to France four years ago from the Ivory Coast and started right away to deliver pizzas and sushi for food delivery service providers like Uber Eats, Deliveroo, or Frichti, to earn a living. At first, without regular documents, he “rented” the accounts of other people. While he uses the word “rental”, this is indeed a form of illegal digital recruitment, a practice that seems to be very popular among the city’s riders, although there are no reliable numbers on the extent of this phenomenon. “For sure, illegal immigrates cannot complain if they work with a fake name,” says Akim.

“They are all aware of this situation”.

Account “rental” works as follows: “The person that rents the profile asks for a fixed price or a percent share of your profits,” explains Akim. He, who is the father of two, did so for two years until, ironically, he obtained regular documents with the help of the service provider he worked for. “After the first lockdown, in which we worked very hard, the group decided to implement controls to prevent the account rental practice. It was a way to clean up its image at a time when they no longer needed much labour,” he says.

At that point, facing the risk of losing their job, Akim and others rose up. “It was a power abuse, so we started a protest. This protest spread, so they helped us settle our position to prevent arguments.” With regular documents, Akim became what is referred to in France as an auto entrepreneur, a status acknowledged to all those that do this job legally, in some respects similar to the Italian VAT number.

Akim and his co-workers won their battle mostly through the help of the General Labour Confederation (Confederation Générale du Travail, CGT), the trade union that, in June, created an ad hoc category, CGT Livreurs, the first trade union in Paris dedicated to the riders’ category, to continue along this course. The national government recently reacted by summoning, in September, the four main service providers (Uber Eats, Deliveroo, Frichti, and Stuart) in view of launching a plan by the end of the year to curb the account “rental” practice that, according to Elisabeth Borne, the Minister of Labour, forces most riders to work in “unacceptable” conditions.

“About 90 percent of riders in Paris work with subcontracted accounts,” says Mandjou Karaboué, secretary general of CGT Livreurs.

While this is an approximate number, perhaps overestimated, it gives an idea of the extent of the issue. The union has not implemented any official actions so far, but it is already looking beyond. “According to the code of labour, an auto entrepreneur is an independent worker,” says Karaboué. “If this were true, we would be allowed to discuss order prices directly with the customers, without relying on intermediaries, like the delivery services.”

The next step is a general meeting, which will take place at the “Delivery men’s house”, a centre that was opened a few weeks ago in the multi-ethnic district of La Chapelle, in the 18th arrondissement, North Paris. Similar venues also exist in New York to provide riders a place to gather and relax in the city jungle.

The Paris facility is operated by CoopCycle, the federation gathering a few cooperatives specializing in bike deliveries, supported by the Amli association and the Paris municipality, which allocated 35thousand EUR to the project.

Here the riders are welcomed by Circe, the centre’s coordinator. “This venue is open to all those that work in the business, because service providers do not offer any places,” she explains. “You can come to take a break, use the restrooms, enjoy a coffee, or recharge your telephone, but we also provide accounting and legal support.” While we talk, a new guest comes and waits by the door. The young man can hardly speak French. He comes to the “Delivery men’s house” to know how to report his monthly profits via the Internet. Circe invites him to take a seat, offers him a glass of water, and patiently explains the process to him for half an hour on the computer. “We have just opened, we want people to get to know us through word-of-mouth,” she says. In addition to support services, the purpose of the “Delivery men’s house” is to help riders find a job by putting them in contact with the CoopCycle cooperatives to work with regular contracts. In fact, there are people in the service providers’ economy trying to create and offer high-quality jobs. Not too far from the “Delivery men’s house”, also in North Paris, there is Olvo, a cooperative that employs about forty people, who ride around the city every day on cargo bikes carrying large amounts of goods. “The project stems from our passion for bike riding,” says Theo, one of the managers of Olvo, during a coffee break inside the store.

The idea is to perform sustainable deliveries, with special care for the workers, who are hired with regular contracts. This is an alternative to the conditions offered by food delivery service providers, notes Theo, while he says goodbye to the first riders preparing to leave on their morning delivery tour.

“Our facility is different from the others, because it is a logistics cooperative. Our deliveries are scheduled ahead of time and concern various kinds of goods, which we can carry on our cargo bikes equipped with quite a large loading area,” he says. “Some in our team started with food delivery services, but others joined this business as a complete change in their life.”

This activity is open to all, on a labour market that is gradually closing in Paris and across France, often for reasons other than professional ones.

The rift between Paris and its suburbs

You easily realize as you visit the suburbs: in the city of the Eiffel Tower, of the Seine, and of the Champs Elysées, sometimes a residence address in your resume is enough to be refused a job.

This is what we hear from Aisha, 23, of Pakistani origin, who was born in Paris but grew up in the Seine-Saint-Denis department, the poorest in metropolitan France, where (according to a study of the Work Group on inequalities) 17.5 percent of the population lived below the poverty threshold in 2020.

“If you come from the suburbs, you carry a sort of label,” she says. After a management control master course she was hired by a company specializing in the provision of consulting services.

In-between, though, she worked for a renowned luxury brand and directly paid the price of her origin. “We, from the suburbs, were not well-regarded,” she says. “There were jokes now and then, not too heavy though, just to remind us that we came from abroad, that we were not one of them.” She sighs and says: “After all, I was lucky, but I have friends and colleagues who come from the same areas and often suffered much more serious discrimination”. The city and the suburbs are two parallel worlds, geographically separated by the boulevard périphérique, the ring road that runs around the city acting as a dividing line, and outlines its boundaries. “There is a rift between Paris and its suburbs, and no one is going to mend it. It is up to us,” says Aisha.

This is a paradox for a city where, according to an estimate of Insee, the French statistic institute, 59% of the 1.8 million workers lived outside the city boundaries in 2017.

However this is an issue that concerns the whole of France, as shown by a survey carried out in April by the French public opinion institute (Ifop), which demonstrated that people reporting discriminations in the hiring process have almost doubled in the past twenty years, from 12% in 2001 to 21% in 2021. In the survey, carried out on a sample of 4,000 employees, 17 percent of respondents said they had received “inappropriate or unpleasant” remarks on their origin, religious beliefs, name, or accent during the interviews.

“Discrimination upon hiring involves several issues,” says Nicolas Jacquemet, professor of Economics at the Sorbonne University, Paris Pantheon, and at the Ecole d’Economie de Paris. “While discrimination in public debates is always claimed to be a racism-related issue, the studies performed in the last ten years show that this is an implicit and unconscious phenomenon involving spontaneous reflexes that we cannot control,” he says.

Aisha managed to find a job through Mouv’Up, an association launched with the goal to mend this rift between Paris and its suburbs by supporting youths in finding a job.

“Our start-up, which operates in the field of the social and fair economy, has turned the paradigm upside down: instead of encouraging youths to find a job, as it usually happens here in France, we start from the demand of companies seeking people for hiring,” says Bernard Gainnier, chairman and co-founder of Mouv’Up together with Stephane Gatignon, former mayor of Sevran. In other words, the association selects profiles based on the needs of companies, to whom the eligible candidates are introduced.

Despite the pandemic-related crisis, this programme helped about sixty people find a job in one and a half years, and the target for 2022 is 400.

Mouv’Up cooperates with local associations to approach and support youths even after they have been hired. But first it often has to work on the candidates’ profile.

“Since they come from special environments, even if they have an educational certificate, they are shy or simply not too familiar with the labour world. Thus their attitude and way of speaking may arouse the companies’ scepticism,” says Gainnier. “We also work on these features, and teach them how to communicate and abide by certain rules.”

However the companies themselves set up barriers that need to be overcome. “There are multiple reasons why companies only seldom hire youths from the suburbs,” says Gainnier. “These include a poor commitment of the employer, who is the “engine of this necessary development.” Managers need to be willing to scout the suburbs for other profiles than the standard ones they use to hire, with “innovation capability, resilience, and a way of working with the potential to improve the company’s performance”. This adds up to the challenge of approaching different profiles: “Hiring people who come from sensitive neighbourhoods means overcoming issues, unconscious barriers.” This is why, he explains, managers often prefer to safely choose candidates whose profiles are based on specific professional courses and training, without taking too much risk.

It is an obstacle race for those that come from certain areas. “These youths are discouraged, do not understand, have a negative vision of a world that offers them no opportunities. Some struggle to succeed, others give up,” says Gainnier. The risk for those that give up is to move farther and farther away from the labour world, and to remain out, perhaps for long.


The NEET army, the “invisible youths”

Discouraged, without an educational or labour project. They are known as NEETs, an English acronym that stands for Not in Education, Employment or Training, and describes youths that neither have a job nor attend a training course.

According to the French statistics institute Insee, in 2019 1.5 million young men and women aged 15 to 29 were NEETs, i.e. 12.9 percent of this age group (vs. 12.5 percent of the European average). Forty-seven percent of these are jobless; 20 percent are inactive, would like to work but do not satisfy the necessary criteria to be considered jobless, and 33 percent are inactive and say they do not wish to work for several reasons.

In Paris alone, also in 2019, this category included 28,700 youths aged 16 to 25, according to an estimate of the Atelier parisien d’urbanisation (Apur), an association connected with the municipality and in charge of performing studies and surveys on  urban and social developments. Thirty-seven percent of these lived in East Paris, particularly in the 18th, 19th, and 20th arrondissement. An army of invisible youths that escape the radars of the labour market.

“It is an uneven category,” says Eric Heyer, economist and director of the analysis and forecast department of the French work group on economic downturns (Ofce) at the Sciences Po University in Paris. “The social context of origin plays a crucial role. Some studies demonstrate that unwholesome accommodations affect their school performance, their ability to find a job, and their health.”

The education level is also very important. “Being not too inclusive, the French school system influences the appearance of new NEETs,” says the economist. “Most investments are aimed at nursery schools and primary schools, but not as much at secondary schools. This is a failure of our republican schooling system, which does not grant the same success opportunities to everyone.”

This is something Jordan knows very well: at 26, he seems to have found a professional career today in artistic carpentry. But it took a long time before he found the right way to go. “At around 14-15 years of age, I started to suffer from agoraphobia and was forced to leave school before the minimum legal age, which is 16 in France,” he says. That was the beginning of an ordeal for Jordan, with alternate training and idle periods. “After about one year of idleness, I enrolled in a training course on mechanics, but was not comfortable in that company, mostly due to my colleagues, who were all much older than me.” So Jordan left and spent six more months idle before he started a new training as truck driver. But he failed again. “I felt under pressure. I was still too young and I think the performance expected from me was too high at such a young age,” he admits.

The challenge of entering the labour world goes hand in hand with social problems for a young man that lives a radically different life compared to his friends. Jordan says: “Basically I am not a friendly person, and if you think that I stayed home while all the others were at school…”.

Jordan saw the light at the end of the tunnel when he started a two-year training course on optical fibres. He was happy and eagerly attended for the first 12 months, but then was forced to stop again. “I had an accident outside the working hours, and suffered an eye injury. I was near blind for about one year. I can hardly see still,” he says. Another tough period, made even tougher by depression and by the psycho-drugs he took to treat it. This time it seemed impossible to start over again. However a spur came from the local Mission, an entity connected with the Ministry of Labour with offices across the French territory, which supports 1.1 million youths aged 16 to 25 every year in finding a job. “My counsellor, Max, directed me towards specialized wood processing training, so I applied to the Fondation Auteuil in Sallois, north-east of Paris, where I am preparing to obtain an art craft licence, a national secondary education and professional teaching certificate.”

Jordan is a former NEET by now, but not all NEETs in France enjoy a happy ending like he did. This is why in July president Emmanuel Macron announced the provision of a specific aid. He called it a “commitment-related income”, aimed at jobless or untrained youths, which will be “logically based on duties and rights.” This measure should integrate the plan “1 youth, 1 solution”, launched by the government in the summer of last year deep in the health crisis, with a total 9 billion EUR funding.

However, while the survey is being published the measure is still to be introduced. Early in September, prime minister Jean Castex disclosed some details and said it will be a “demanding measure”, while the economic newspaper “Les Echos” anticipated a downsizing of the programme aimed at 500thousand youths, half of the estimated initial number, who should receive about 500 EUR each per month.

This aid is eagerly awaited by many youths that, unlike Jordan, cannot always rely on their family. “My mother provided crucial help at those times,” says the former NEET today. Then he stops, broods for a while:

“And she still does.” This is lucky in a city like Paris, where loneliness is often the first barrier you need to counter.

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