Newspaper article International New York Times

Fake Jobs in Europe with Real Benefits ; Programs Try to Combat an Alarming Rise in Long-Term Unemployment

Newspaper article International New York Times

Fake Jobs in Europe with Real Benefits ; Programs Try to Combat an Alarming Rise in Long-Term Unemployment

Article excerpt

Companies that deal in imaginary wares are being used across Europe to combat an alarming rise in long-term unemployment with realistic training.

At 9:30 a.m. on a sunny weekday, the phones at Candelia, a purveyor of sleek office furniture in Lille, France, rang steadily with orders from customers across the country and from Switzerland and Germany. A photocopier clacked rhythmically while more than a dozen workers processed sales, dealt with suppliers and arranged for desks and chairs to be shipped.

Sabine de Buyzer, working in the accounting department, leaned into her computer and scanned a row of numbers. Candelia was doing well. Its revenue that week was outpacing expenses, even counting taxes and salaries. "We have to be profitable," Ms. De Buyzer said. "Everyone's working all out to make sure we succeed."

This was a sentiment any boss would like to hear, but in this case the entire business is fake. So are Candelia's customers and suppliers, from the companies ordering the furniture to the trucking operators that make deliveries. Even the bank where Candelia gets its loans is not real.

More than 100 Potemkin companies like Candelia are operating today in France, and there are thousands more across Europe. In Seine-St.-Denis, outside Paris, a pet business called Animal Kingdom sells products like dog food and frogs. ArtLim, a company in Limoges, peddles fine porcelain. Prestige Cosmetique in Orleans deals in perfumes. All these companies' wares are imaginary.

These companies are all part of an elaborate training network that effectively operates as a parallel economic universe. For years, the aim was to train students and unemployed workers looking to make a transition to different industries. Now they are being used to combat the alarming rise in long-term unemployment, one of the most pressing problems to emerge from Europe's long economic crisis.

Ms. De Buyzer did not care that Candelia was a phantom operation. She lost her job as a secretary two years ago and has been unable to find steady work. Since January, though, she had awakened early every weekday, put on makeup and gotten ready to go the office. By 9 a.m. she arrives at the small office in a low-income neighborhood of Lille, where the joblessness rate is among the highest in the country.

While she doesn't earn a paycheck, Ms. De Buyzer, 41, welcomes the regular routine. She hopes Candelia will lead to a real job, after countless searches and interviews that have gone nowhere.

"It's been very difficult to find a job," said Ms. De Buyzer, who like most of the trainees has been collecting unemployment benefits. "When you look for a long time and don't find anything, it's so hard. You can get depressed," she said. "You question your abilities. After a while, you no longer see a light at the end of the tunnel."

She paused to sign a fake check for a virtual furniture supplier, then instructed Candelia's marketing department -- a group of four unemployed women sitting a few desks away -- to update the company's mock online catalog. "Since I've been coming here, I have had a lot more confidence," Ms. De Buyzer said. "I just want to work."

Five years after Europe descended into crisis, there are signs that a recovery may finally be taking hold. The economy of the 19- nation eurozone has been growing slowly but steadily since last year, led by Germany and a turnaround in once-troubled countries like Spain and Ireland. As oil prices have dropped, consumer spending and manufacturing have started to pick up. Unemployment is even starting to fall.

Yet long-term unemployment -- the kind that Ms. De Buyzer and nearly 10 million others in the eurozone are experiencing -- has become a defining reality.

Last year, a staggering 52.6 percent of unemployed people in the eurozone were without work for a year or more, the highest level on record, according to Eurostat, and many of those have been jobless more than two years. …

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