A couple of weeks after Geren starts his exciting new career in the restaurant trade, we are so proud of him. He's flying in the face of the banking crisis cut-backs and an EU wide 25 percent unemployment rate.
The dark clouds gather at la restaurant Antipodes.
I knew it. I didn't like to be pessimistic in part 1. I was carried away with enjoying the fruits of tough love, hard labour, proper french apprenticeships and potentially tasty meals. I hate cooking and I let the prospect of being a willing test dummie cloud my better judgement.
When we'd first heard that Geren had found an apprentiship so late into the apprentice calender, late October, instead of June, we'd had our suspicions.
Why wasn't anyone else taking this up?
Why had the previous apprentice left?
We did ask the questions. Being realistic and a tad suspicious is a necessary part of being 50 and still being alive. But the answers were vague. The boss said the other apprentice had been stealing.
Geren didn't care then, that his kitchen was dirty and the size of a broom cupboard, or that his boss was starting to say things like “ you'll need to do extra hours, you do realize this, don't you”. We were all so relieved that he'd been given a chance to find a career. Of course, when faced with the general youth unemployment scenario, no-one wants to be too suspicious, especially the actual youth, do they? Besides there were fancy enameled plaques on the restaurant entrance and a standard menu was 50 euros. Everything seemed so rosy, for a change.
But, just for insurance, I start keeping a record of his “extra” hours. I also start to get him to text me when he reaches home, so that I can both keep track of his shift times and make sure he's home safe. A couple of nights he's stopped by police on his way home and once he's accosted by a drunk, with no serious trouble, fortunately. But I'm not pleased with him being made to travel across a city alone so late every night. Not even a lift home in the bosses sports car. I offer to speak with the boss but am told to stay out of it.
At the end of the month, when his first pay check arrives, our worst fears are confirmed. No extra pay for the 50 extra hours, but a verbal “promis” of time off in lieu.
The rate for a 16 year old apprentis is 25 percent of SMIC (minimum wage). So 335€ a month. The restaurant owner can get special permission for an apprentis to work extra hours, up to 40 hrs a week. But to do so, he needs to ask a medecin de travail for a certificate and also have a certificate from the Maison de Travail. They are the french equivalent of the regional health & safety executive. We assumed this has been granted for his previous apprentices at Restaurant Antipodes. Geren qualifies for housing benefit (aide lodgement) but 90€ per month needs to be used on his own rent contribution and household bills. We carry on paying his phone and insurance bills. He counts himself lucky to be getting free food after each shift. We shared our food with him at weekends and don't ask him for help for transport fuel. We carry on buying him clothes and bought his basic uniform and tools. Don't ask me how we did this, I don't know how. We were living off virtually nothing ourselves, with a huge RSI problem, and no work that winter.
Christmas consists of Geren's two days off during which he cooked for us. His only way of saying thank you. It was great. I took photos. He is obviously learning something and still enjoys cooking despite being a total galley slave. We conclude he has found his metier.
Until month 3, the apprentice can be asked to leave and can leave, without recrimination on either part after which, the apprentiship becomes a firm employment contract. Christmas and new year came and went in a flurry of late shifts, all-nighters and ever-increasing responsibilities. Geren is given keys to open up with, which he's flattered by and I'm quite proud of but I also start to wonder if he's old enough, whether the boss just can't be bothered or is he being tested for loyalty?
I'd been disabled by a back deformity in 2011, which means no more work for me, and a long wait for disability and unemployment benefits. So with some time on my hands, I up my support for him, collecting him often after a late Saturday shift, doing his washing and washing up as I wait in his telephone-box studio for his shifts to finish. Then driving him back to Chauvigny in the early hours for a day and a half of sleep, during which we finish his washing and wonder how to get him through the next 19 months. I combined the 2 x 50k round trips to Poitiers with shopping, library and my vital swimming sessions. Make no mistake, this was no smothering mothering. No way did I have the time or energy for that and there was no question that he needed help badly. He was new to independent living and working 45-60hours a week, split shifts. 10.30am till 3pm, then 6pm till Midnight, Monday evening to Saturday. I declared to him that whatever the outcome I would be his “PA”, because he couldn't be expected to keep it all together under those conditions on such low pay. At the same time, I start explaining to him that he needs to be more assertive and his dad also tries talking to him. We encourage him to speak with his tutor and he does this, but they only advise him to say no and stick to the rules. He starts to really show the strain. Back to irritable, angry, sulky disgruntled teenage mode, in between shifts. During his actual working hours he experiences the only positive mood lifting feelings he has any time for. A sense of achievement at learning a trade he's keen on. He doesn't want to loose this and he can envisage the turmoil that will be inevitable if he walks out on a crap job. No experience, no references and parents who can't afford to support him financially.
With month 2 complete and his proper contract signed, he finds the confidence to challenge his boss after I drop him off one Monday. His boss meekly mumbles something to me about him not needing to work on Monday evenings any more. He must have spotted the growing resentment on my face. Geren is then told, once I'm no longer about, in no uncertain terms that “this is how it is in the restaurant trade”, and “ you're working extra hours because you're an apprentice” and “ it's la crise, I can't pay you for the extra hours” and “ everyone else had to do it, so will you”.
What a crock of old french poo. 100 hours extra worked and no sign of time off in lieu.
Geren sinks deeper into believing there is no alternative to being exploited. During his monthly 35 hour weeks at college, he is still expected to work Saturday evenings until 1am before and after this “normal week”.
I start researching apprentis rules and I present my findings to my tired out boy on a daily basis. Mr Colin is breaking the law on so many levels. Hours per week, late working, not enough rest between shifts, no weekend breaks, non payment of overtime, not getting legal authorisation. Geren continued to believe he had no choice. He didn't think there was any point in complaining. He believed he'd just got a bad deal but that he'd have to put up with it and he partly blamed himself for not finding a job sooner when the best placements were on offer. He had to keep going, until the end, he felt, or find a different placement. He soon gave up on negotiating or having any spare time to look for another job. The rest of the staff clearly all felt the same. As soon as the boss was out of the room the relief was palpable. The boss stopped saying hello to me when I turned up after midnight on Saturdays to collect Geren. Geren would be sweating, working at speed, cleaning and tidying and cooking for the staff and the boss would be relaxing in the corner, laughing and showing off, entertaining friends. The restaurant would be otherwise empty and he wouldn't even get up out of his chair to say hello or acknowledge me in any way, unless I did so first. I've been long enough in France and on this planet to know when someone is deliberately being rude and a guilty face when I see one.
Geren makes me to promise not to speak on his behalf to his boss. He says it's pointless. Torn between wanting to stand up for my son and respecting his wish to sort his own troubles, I found it REALLY hard not to get involved. I draft a letter to his boss threatening legal action and I wait.
Valentines day approaches. Geren is informed this is the busiest night of the year and he will have to work "extra" extra shifts. He finishes at 2am the night before and is at work for 10am next morning. He works all day and all night and is given 30 euros extra for his trouble. Geren tells me that at the back of the restaurant is a storage room used for the wine cellar, where there are piles and piles of rotting rubbish and that it had flooded and not dried out properly. He describes the broken fridge, which cannot be accessed properly, which is not cleaned regularly and has rotting mold in each corner. There are no fridge thermometers and a list on the wall from the last health and safety check that has not been dealt with. It's supposed to be displayed to customers but is hidden in a staff corridor.
Geren refuses to work any more Saturdays after the monthly college week. Mr Colin explains his own serious health problem to Geren and tells Geren that he will need to cook by himself during lunches, when he goes to hospital for treatment. He says he will pay Geren for the extra Saturdays. Geren is both impressed and horrified by the extra responsibility. He is 16. I go back to my drafted letter and I explain to M. Colin that I am now prepared to give him one more chance before I take legal action, because he has started to negotiate a little and I have heard he has a serious health issue.
March arrives and with it, comes some overdue sick pay for me, so I decide a family trip to Blighty in April to celebrate Geren's older brother's birthday is definitely needed. I tell Geren to insist on some of the promised time in lieu and I set a date for a ferry trip. 16Th April, in 25days. By the middle of March time Geren has clocked 200 hours extra, for which he has been paid nothing and another 40 hours, for which he has been paid about 120 euros “cash.” The smoke coming out of my ears is now visible from Dover on a clear day.
Geren still hasn't asked for the time off and it's almost April. It's clear he's not optimistic. Easter is looming and he's been told they will be very busy. A temporary chef arrives for one busy evening, when the boss is away. Geren experiences working with someone who teaches properly and helps to clean up. He is home before midnight and they have completed all the tasks for the next morning as well.
Geren misses a Monday at college after another late Saturday at work. He just hasn't the time to wind down. He's stressed and complaining of headaches and sleeplessness. His skin is in an appalling state and the irritability is barely controlled. He looks fit to burst. He talks of wanting to hit the boss. He says the boss is starting to complain that he isn't working “properly”. We advise him that if he looses his temper at work he's lost the battle and he has to promise us he will tell him to stuff his job and walk out, before he stoops to violence. We tell him again, that what his boss is doing is illegal and that if Geren wants to he can make an official complaint and we will support him. We warn him that if his boss realises that he's pushing Geren too far he will probably welcome an excuse to sack him and that he'll have much more chance of getting another job if he doesn't loose his rag. He's talking about the pointlessness of it all.
On the Tuesday I open a letter from the Maison De La Formation, the traininginstitute. It's a standard parents note asking me why Geren has not turned up for college. I breath a sigh of relief. I think, 'Thank goodness for French red tape'. I write in french : “ absent with stress, because of serious, illegal exploitation from his boss” and I pop it in the postbox with grim determination.
I think “stuff that in your frozen chocolate puddings that you pretend are fresh and smoke them, Monsieur Colin!”
Part three, on it's way.....