Tag Archives: unemployment

Fight for your right to… work?

Blame it on the churros. Or the pumping early 90’s American dance beats. Or the sky high CGT blimps. Whatever the reason, I found myself unexpectedly caught up in France’s national strike on Thursday, January 29. As I stuffed my face with sugary fried dough, I realized the irony of how I had spent the entire day frantically searching for a job in Paris while the rest of France played hooky from work.

The Communists, the Socialists, the teachers, the retirees, the unemployed – even those who weren’t sure why they were there (clearly marked by their “grève générale” stickers) had conglomerated at Metro Bastille to protest teacher cuts, reduced purchasing power, fewer unemployment benefits, less medical coverage and general discontent with French life.

French students, teachers, trade unions and parents demonstrate in Paris

As an American, I couldn’t understand it. Much of France’s je ne sais quoi appeal involves not just great coffee, pastries and fashion, but tangible benefits: a 35-hour work week, paid medical and dental insurance, 25 days paid vacation, and 16 weeks maternity leave with the option of taking three years off (unpaid) from work while retaining total job security.

And what if you should lose your job in this feeble economy? Getting laid off in France means receiving up to 75% of your salary for months, even years, (often receiving more than you would gaining the minimum wage), free job training and advice, and the ability to keep your health insurance. Being a chomeur is so great, in fact, that many young people purposely quit their jobs, take up the benefits and go traveling for a few months.

So as President Sarkozy fights to the death to keep jobs for French citizens, many of those same citizens are abusing the unemployment system in order to avoid working altogether. And that laissez-faire attitude is taking its toll. While France is still one of Europe’s economic darlings (ranked fifth in the world according to its nominal GDP) it has one of the lowest percentages of hours worked compared to other developed countries. And as of October 2008, France had 4 million people on chomage and an 8% unemployment rate – one of the highest in Europe.

Mass nationwide strike in France

Yet here I sat, work permit in hand, and I could not get a job. Call it that old French mistrust of immigration where “stranger equals danger,” but it seemed to most employers that my situation was just too “complicated.”

While France has advanced in many ways over the years, its immigration policies have not: in order for Americans to work here, we need a permit from the government. But we cannot get the permit without getting the job first. And voilà, instant conundrum. Apart from marrying a French citizen, becoming a lifelong student or going through the painstaking process of starting your own business, Americans are left in a catch-22 that even MacGyver wouldn’t be able to work himself out of.

Luckily, Americans seem to be born with eternal optimism and an inner drive to work hard that is somewhat lost on the European “work to live, not live to work” mentality. Not that reducing our self-worth to a job timetable is necessarily a positive thing, but it certainly prepares us for a good fight.

So if your American dream involves a healthy serving of croissants and blue cheese, prepare for a Hercules-sized battle against those notorious French bureaucratic sticks and spears – but don’t throw down your shield just yet. If Americans can elect a black president only 50 years after employing racially separated drinking fountains and bus seats, we can surely figure out how to do a simple thing like working in France, right?

This article was originally published in the April 2009 edition of Brit’mag.

The job search starts here: A look at a few booming world economies

During a recent trip to the UK and Ireland, the economic crisis was on everyone’s lips. I happened to reach London just as the pound dropped into the toilet, and landed in Dublin to hear that 15 years of economic growth was for nought. And a friend of a friend from L.A. said that every time he calls his newspaper editor pal to ask him what he did that day, the answer is, “I laid some more people off.”

As we job hunters sit squarely planted on our derrieres in front of the TV, watching one side of the couch indent increasingly deeper, it sounds like there’s no hope left. But after a little research, I have decided not to book my trip home to my parent’s house quite yet. The economy may be floundering here, but what about there?

According to an October article on http://www.businesspundit.com, there are a few places on earth where it doesn’t cost 12 pounds/euros/dollars to buy a cheeseburger and where finding a job doesn’t mean waiting it out for the next ten months on food stamps. Here, their top ten, with my two cents thrown in.

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10. China (Although, I am skeptical of this one, considering the news of late): You see? Communism does work.

9. Brazil: An even better reason to start working on your tan.

8. Romania: Fine, you don’t speak Romanian, but they do have an award-winning gymnastics team!

7. Thailand: The most amazing sunsets in the world and great pad thai on the street for cheap. Just beware of the occasional coup.

6. North Korea: Okay, you might never be able to come home again, but at least the job security is for life! And if you ever get sick of hearing about nuclear missile developments, you can always risk it and hop the border to the South, where extremely well-paid English teaching jobs are in abundance.

5. Iran: Apparently some of the friendliest people in the world, who are very eager to invite foreigners (yes, even Americans) into their homeland. And yet another country with a powerful nuclear program (is this just a coincidence?).

4. Malaysia: I’ll give you ten dollars if you can correctly identify the exact location of this country, plus one fun-fact. Because I can’t.

3. Morocco: Long gone are the days of dusty roads and rigid religious-based rules. Females are free to walk the streets uncovered, the economy is booming and it’s close enough for a mini-vacation to Spain or France.

2. Armenia: Perhaps the reason Armenia is doing so well is because no one has ever heard of it. Or if they have heard of it, they never think about it. In reality, their international obscurity has meant not relying on outside governments to keep their economy afloat. And voilà, here they are at number two.

1. The United Arab Emirates: There’s more to this country than Dubai, despite what sex-on-the-beach obsessed Brits may think. This oil-rich, culturally diverse nation is worth not only a short trip, but being put on the list for your next job move. It may just be the world’s only sure thing.

Continued good luck to all those job seekers out there! This can’t possibly last forever…

Sink or swim: A day in the life of a “chomeuse” in France

The day started off nicely enough. I woke up at a “bonne heure,” as they say in France – or in my case, 8 a.m. I went to work as usual, carrying nothing out of the ordinary, short of an orange plastic bag. You could say I saw it coming.

Today, our business went out of business. “Liquidation” in French is close enough to the English equivalent that I think the meaning is evident, but it basically means that one day you have a job, and the next, you’re carrying everything you have to your name in an orange plastic bag. After a stressful month of not knowing where things stood with my already confusing work visa, I was thrown, with the rest of my colleagues, into a giant unfriendly pool called Unemployment.

Being unemployed in your own country is confusing enough, but try doing it abroad. First, you must deal with the few naysayers that tell you that you shouldn’t mooch off another country’s government, that you shouldn’t take handouts, that you should pack up and go to your side of the Atlantic to seek help (as if they would offer any). Then you have others, those who console and hug and try to explain the archaic French administration system and why you need 500 different papers in order to get anything done in the country. Either way, the process is hell and a tough skin is imperative (I knew my journalism experience would come in handy someday).Clench

After we were let out of work, I walked and walked until my hips were sore. I went to the ANPE, ORPI, CAF, ASSEDIC, PM, BP, and every other acronym I could think of. Because I did not receive my salary for last month, I cannot afford to pay for the bus, so it’s just me and my hips, and this town – it’s the first time I’ve appreciated its smallness.

First I walk to the bank, sloshing into a huge puddle on my way, which soaks the entire front of my shoe and right pant leg. (Oh, did I mention that my entire day of running around was done in the rain?). I am immediately brushed off and told to come back in four hours to meet with my financial adviser, which is the only time she is available.

Then onto my housing agency, where my landlords note my financial situation with care, giving me a few weeks to pay my rent and a consoling “bon courage” on my way out. With a relieved smile, I hit the ANPE to inquire about unemployment.

“You must not get discouraged!” says the woman at the front counter. “You’ll find something.” She gives me a few pointers for my big meeting with the unemployment counselor next Monday and sends me on my way. Next is the CAF, where I finally meet my match. Besides the 7 year old boy who gives me his ticket in line and allows me to avoid waiting an hour, there is no good news in sight. No help for my rent, no aid for at least two months, and no back pay. For a person leaving the country in February, this is not good news.

I make my way over to the Optician to pick up my contact lenses. I am trying to get in on the deal I’ve got going with my insurance company that ensures they will pay for my lenses before the new year hits. I’ve ordered enough for six months and all I have to do is ask for a pay stub on my way out.

Not so fast. The guy at the counter tells me that because my lenses were not ordered following a visit to a doctor, they must be paid for on the spot. He wants 78 euros now or I’m not leaving with those lenses. “Well, I’m sorry, I can’t pay that, it’s just not possible,” I say, forcing back the tears of stress that have lay dormant all day. “My office just went bankrupt and I haven’t been paid.”

The man tells me it’s okay, that I or someone else can just write a check and give it to them, and in a few months, everything will be reimbursed. “You can have someone bring in a check – like your mom can write a check for you,” he says.

“Uh no,” I sputter, my eyebrows jolting up into my forehead in disbelief, “My mom lives in America.” Not to mention that I’m 29 and my days of asking my parents for money are about a decade away, buddy. I want to laugh in his face and tell him what an ignorant idiot he is, but in fact, he’s being quite nice and I can’t blame him for thinking I look 18. Because I do.

Angry Girl!

Back out into the rain I go, empty handed but for my black, dwindling umbrella, matching my mood. I decide to go home for a breather.

I check my email, where my co-worker sends out a message inviting me and a few others to dinner this weekend, luring me with a menu “specially prepared” for us by the chef in the name of 20 euros per head. That should work out well, I think to myself, since I have 30 euros to my name at the moment and no money coming in for at least three weeks.

And then, out of nowhere, a swath of fresh air. A woman I have never met – a friend of a friend – is calling me to invite me to dinner tonight. She’s half American, half French and splits her time between Perigueux and Chicago. I have never met her but soon find myself telling her every detail of my work and life situation. I seem to be doing that a lot lately.

Successfully avoiding my overpowering desire to ask her if she knows of anyone who’s hiring (a nervous twitch I seem to be developing), I hang up the phone and have smile number two of the day.

My bank appointment is in ten minutes, so I strap on my shoes again and go back out into the rain. Turns out, my meeting with my counselor hasn’t shown up on her computer and she only has five minutes for me. Five minutes is all I need, I tell her.

I once again explain my situation and she just distractedly says, “how much do you need? 1000 euros? 800?” I laugh nervously, the thought of paying back such an amount an already daunting thought. “I was thinking more like 500.” She fills out the piece of scratch paper in a handwritten mess and asks me to sign. “And what if I find that this isn’t enough?” I ask her nervously. She looks up for a moment and says, “You just come back and ask me for what you need.

“You know Camille, right?” she smiles, taking an extra moment to chat when she remembers that we share a mutual friend. “You’re French is much better now,” she adds.

And with that, my counselor sends me out of the office with a polite handshake. In the lobby, I crash head-on into one of the bank tellers, a jolly middle-aged man with a small smile and almond shaped eyes. “So, what happened with your account? Is everything okay?” He has been watching over my case since I came into the office yesterday in a panic. I explain to him with a silly grin that everything is alright and walk out into the streets of Perigueux as if I have just won the lottery.

Everyone says money can’t buy you happiness. Even Paris Hilton went on TV to say that it doesn’t matter if you have a million dollars, a thousand dollars or one dollar – it’s what’s inside that counts. Okay, so money doesn’t automatically equate eternal bliss. But I have to say, after the day I have had, it really goddamn helps.