‘Working’ at Candelia. Capuchine Grenier-Deferre for the New York Times
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…
…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”…
…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 on record, according to Eurostat, and many of those have been jobless more than two years…
…The problem is worst along Europe’s southern rim. In Greece, which has plunged back into a recession, 73 percent of job seekers have not landed work in more than a year; in Italy, it is 61 percent. But the trend is rising even in more prosperous nations like France, where the rate recently approached 43 percent, the highest in two decades….
….The concept of virtual companies, also known as practice firms, traces its roots to Germany after World War II, when large numbers of people needed to reorient their skills. Intended to supplement vocational training, the centers emerged in earnest across Europe in the 1950s and spread rapidly in the last two decades. Today about 5,000 practice firms operate on the Continent, supported by government funds, with at least 2,500 elsewhere in the world, including the United States…
….“We have more long-term unemployed people than ever before,” he said. Most are under 25 and have either not found work or are getting only precarious temporary jobs. But there is also a surge in unemployed people over 50. “Today,” Mr. Troton said, “more and more people who lose their jobs stay jobless”…
….Some of the faux companies even hold strikes — a common occurrence in France. Axisco, a virtual payment processing center in Val d’Oise, recently staged a fake protest, with slogans and painted banners, to teach workers’ rights and to train human resources staff members to calm tensions.
Perhaps more important, he added, being in a workplace — even a simulated one — helps alleviate the psychological confusion and pain that can take hold the longer people go without a job….
No Permanent Jobs
…Today, more than half of all new jobs in the European Union are temporary contracts, according to Eurostat.
…At Animal Kingdom, Mrs. Banuelos said the goal was to get the unemployed into any job, no matter the duration.
“The reality is that almost everything is a short-term contract,” she said. “They can be precarious, but with the crisis, there is almost no such thing as permanent work anymore”…