- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 29, 2002

EVIAN-LES-BAINS, France Cheap foreign labor is flocking to France, mostly in defiance of immigration laws and the 35-hour workweek enacted by the previous socialist government.

Foreigners from what is known as "black labor" are paid wages below the legal minimum and are frequently housed in what officials describe as "inhuman conditions."

Although France has an unemployment rate of nearly 9 percent, there are dramatic shortages in some fields while in others employers prefer foreign workers on short contracts and without the burden of heavy payroll taxes.

Among the markets most affected are hospitals, where the 35-hour week has crippled round-the-clock nursing service.

"For one nursing job we now need five employees to keep the service of 168 hours a week," said Dr. Patrick Rigaud of the large Camille Blanc Hospital center in this lakeside resort at the foot of the Alps.

"We are now looking for nurses and nursing aides in Spain, Poland and even in Lebanon to fill the 10,000-personnel shortage throughout France," he said.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy from the present conservative Cabinet has promised to tackle the growing problem that affects agriculture, construction, tourism and manufacturing industries.

There is also the need for an estimated 100,000 short-term workers to collect grapes during the approaching harvest in wine country. Growers rely on a network of often shady companies importing Polish and British volunteers to harvest the fruit.

The problem is particularly acute in the Champagne area where, traditionally, grapes must be picked by hand and the date of the harvest is usually announced on short notice.

"Just watch the masses arriving at the Epernay railroad station in a couple of weeks," said Gerard Chemla, a lawyer who recently defended two Turkish labor contractors known as "negriers."

"My clients were fined but no one bothered the workers, their employers or lodgers," he said.

The grape pickers are usually paid $500 a month for a short contract, or approximately half of the minimum wage, and are housed in primitive dwellings. Some pay their own trips and many, such as students from Poland, consider the experience as a form of vacation.

A government committee on labor conditions blames foreign companies for the mass violation of French law. But the companies, many based in Warsaw, say they are merely answering a growing demand from French employers.

Alpine winter resorts, a favorite with British and Scandinavian skiers, are big users of cheap labor.

Roger Machet, who handles recruitment for ski resorts, said that when the winter season opens the industry will need an estimated 30,000 "chalet boys and girls" who clean and provide basic services in chalets for group tours.

The candidates usually receive 25 percent less than the minimum wage but receive housing and a ski pass.

So far the government has accepted the explanation by employers that chalet personnel are part-time labor, contracted outside France and hence not constrained by such laws as the 35-hour week. But Mr. Sarkozy has already started talks about the need to "adjust" the shorter workweek, a move bitterly opposed by employers, according to the needs and financial situations of various enterprises.

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