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Renault factory workers in poor labor conditions have no sympathy for 'cost-cutter' Ghosn

The Flins Renault Factory is pictured here in Flins, north of Paris, on Dec. 7, 2018. (Mainichi/Kohei Misawa)

FLINS, France -- The arrest of Carlos Ghosn, ex-chairman of Nissan Motor Co. and until recently, chairman and CEO of major French automaker Renault SA, has sent shockwaves through this town, some 20 kilometers northwest of Paris on the banks of the Seine.

Arrested in Japan for several charges including suspicion of misusing Nissan funds for personal purposes, Carlos Ghosn was infamous at the Flins Renault Factory here as a "cost-cutter." Workers hold strong resentment toward him for forcibly downsizing the factory.

The Flins factory has been manufacturing Nissan's Micra -- a model marketed as "March" in Japan -- since 2017, and is known as an outpost symbolizing French President Emmanuel Macron's desire to use Renault's alliance with Nissan to increase employment in France.

According to senior factory officials, however, since Ghosn took the reins of Renault in 2005, there were out-and-out job cuts. A male employee at the factory in his 50s said of Ghosn that he'd been waiting for the former executive to go to prison, and that it was only natural that he be arrested. He called Ghosn, who allegedly used corporate funds for his personal use, a "thief," and added, "We don't support thieves."

Much of the French media's reports are sympathetic to Ghosn, with a focus on his long-term detention by Japanese authorities. However, a 46-year-old male employee at the Flins factory said that workers there had been "disgusted" by Ghosn, and that he'd wondered why Ghosn hadn't been arrested sooner.

In the employees' parking lot, there are few Renault cars. Many of the vehicles that are parked there are from competing manufacturers, such as Toyota and Volkswagen. There is even a worker inside the factory wearing a shirt of another major French automaker, Peugeot.

Ali Kaya, a 48-year-old central delegate of the CGT union at the Flins factory, said that along with personnel cuts, nearly half of factory employees were put on short-term contracts lasting at least a month but less than three months. Kaya, who himself has continuously worked at the factory since 1997, says many workers don't feel pride in working for Renault since they make Nissan cars now anyway. Also, some might finish their contracts at Peugeot and then come to work at Renault the next week for a short term [see reference].

In addition to Nissan and Renault, Ghosn carried out wide-ranging layoffs at Russian automaker AvtoVAZ and Romanian car maker Dacia SA. Kaya raised his voice when he declared Ghosn an enemy of laborers worldwide.

A newly hired 23-year-old employee at the Flins factory said that when Ghosn met with new hires last October, he told the employees that the work itself was not very important, but "productivity enhancement" was. The 23-year-old said it represented the philosophy of the company and felt like "a religion."

Labor conditions are growing increasingly worse, but many of the employees are immigrants, and the workplace culture is not one in which they feel comfortable asking for improvements, lest their residential status be revoked. According to multiple employees, the early morning shift begins at 5 a.m. With the exception of two toilet breaks (approx. 10 minutes each), employees are prohibited from leaving their posts until their shift ends at 1 p.m. Some workers are said to start crying because they cannot help wetting or soiling their clothes.

A worker on an assembly line said that the laborers are forced to compete against each other to improve "productivity" and meet quotas. And some workers have developed emotional or physical problems from the monotony of repetitive menial tasks.

Factory workers are also angry with the French government, Renault's top shareholder. On the walls of the employees' offices were large numbers of posters criticizing the government. Yellow vests -- the same ones worn by those participating in anti-government demonstrations across the country that started late last year -- were strewn about. A 46-year-old factory worker who participated in the demonstrations said, "We have little respect for both (Ghosn) or Macron. I just feel anger toward them."

Renault was founded in 1898 as Societe Renault Freres by the industrialist Louis Renault and his two brothers. In 1945, shortly after the end of World War II, the chairman of the Provisional Government of the French Republic, Charles de Gaulle, issued a decree that nationalized the automaker. With its innovative designs as its major selling point, Renault cars spread among the French public. The company was privatized in 1996, but even today, the French government has a 15-percent stake in it, and is involved in the company's operations.

"(The) French state is only interested about dividends," Fabien Gache, a 55-year-old central delegate of the CGT union at Renault, told the Mainichi Shimbun. He continued to say that the government does not have the interests of the company's employees in mind. As for Ghosn, Gache added angrily, he slashed the number of workers, cut wages, and wrought havoc to workers' health.

Near the Flins factory is even a road named after Louis Renault, the founder of the car manufacturer. It's a 20-minute walk from the factory to the nearest train station on that street, but one encounters absolutely no other pedestrians. It's a ghost town now, but the area was apparently bustling in years past, until the factory lost many of its jobs, and the town lost most of its liveliness. On the one hand, Ghosn's cost-cutting measures have reaped great benefits for shareholders. However, the anger of the laborers who were sacrificed for the sake of those shareholders has been greater than was expected. For whom do corporations exist? Renault must confront this old and new question squarely in the face.

(Japanese original by Kohei Misawa, Europe General Bureau)

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