Jobless and desperate: the post-lockdown reality for many

Paris – Many workers’ lives have been abruptly upended by the coronavirus pandemic, as job losses in tourism, air travel, food and drink and other industries hit those both on fixed contracts and in the informal sector.

From employees making a comfortable living, to others just scraping by, people around the world are confronting anxiety over how to feed their families and shame at being forced to seek handouts amid growing poverty.

The IMF says that world GDP is set to plunge 4.9 percent this year from the crisis sparked by the global pandemic, and warns that low-income households and unskilled workers are most affected.

AFP met people in France, Mexico, Ukraine, Spain, Colombia and the United States, who already are, or fear they soon will be, without work and spoke of their despair, sacrifices, dashed hopes and fears for the future.

 

– Plunged into precariousness –

 

“I’ve slipped into a state of insecurity,” says Frenchman Xavier Chergui, 44, who for 10 years has been a temp maitre d’, filling in at Paris restaurants when they were short staffed.

The married, father of two made a monthly 1,800-2,600 euros ($2,062-2,978), and in a really good month could sometimes earn 4,000 euros.

But as soon as France locked down, the work stopped and the family is surviving on state aid of 875 euros.

He hasn’t been able to meet his monthly rent of 950 euros since March, nor the electricity bill for three months.

Although he’s managed to keep up his 250-euro car loan repayments, the family’s holiday in the south west is now off the cards, he said.

“We’ve lost everything… Psychologically you have to cope with it,” he told AFP.

But his wife is suffering from depression and he is just holding out for September when he hopes business will resume — virus permitting.

 

– Forced career about-turn –

 

With dreams of becoming a pilot, 26-year-old Colombian Roger Ordonez had been working as a flight attendant for Avianca since 2017 but studying to get his wings.

“You get used to a certain lifestyle because you have a good salary and you can travel,” he said.

He’s visited various countries in the region and the US in recent years and took his family for their first trip abroad.

At the end of March, at the airline’s request, he agreed to take two weeks’ unpaid leave, which was then extended.

Two months later, he learned that his temporary contract would not be renewed after it ended on June 30.

In the meantime, Avianca filed for bankruptcy.

Ordonez has had to abandon his pilot studies and can no longer help his family out with the bills.

“I’ve looked for work but it’s difficult because my sector is tourism and it’s the most affected by COVID-19,” he said.

He’s thinking of retraining, perhaps in management, trade or sales, he says.

 

– Food bank ‘shame’ –

 

To fill the fridge and feed her student son, daughter and grandson, Sonia Herrera has no choice but to rely on the food bank.

“It makes me a bit ashamed to ask for help,” the 52-year-old Honduran, who lives in the Spanish capital, said.

People look, and there’s the guilt of wondering if “maybe others need it more”, she added.

As a domestic worker, she earned a monthly 480 euros until her employers in central Madrid let her go, the day after Spain’s lockdown began.

As an undocumented migrant, she cannot claim state aid.

The whole family lives on about 600 euros in unemployment benefit that her daughter Alejandra, 32, receives after losing her job as a cook in a nursery which had to close during confinement.

With a few savings too, they scrape by.

But little pleasures “that you notice when you lose them”, such as occasionally going out for an ice cream, are gone and their cat Bella’s operation had to be put back.

“The end of the month scares me more than the virus. You have to eat after all,” Herrera said.

 

– ‘Total shock’ –

 

Ukrainian IT specialist Natalia Murashko, 39, was due for a promotion after four years as a senior quality-control engineer at American travel company Fareportal.

When the pandemic hit, about 15 employees were dismissed on March 31 but she thought her job was safe as her bosses had reassured her.

However, the very next day, she was given two weeks’ notice. “I thought at first it was a stupid April Fool’s joke,” she said.

“It was a total shock.”

Murashko’s computer skills placed her in a rarefied group that can make several thousand euros a month in Ukraine, compared to an average salary in the country of around 300 euros.

She was able to afford a cleaner, trips to the beautician and new clothes.

From one day to the next, her life changed beyond recognition.

Now she’s living off savings and odd jobs. Last month, the mum of two teens, who also looks after her 73-year-old mother, made 600 euros.

Her job hunting has been fruitless and she limits her spending to the absolute minimum.

“One thing I haven’t cut is my psychotherapist,” she said. Since losing her job, she’s had trouble sleeping and suffers anxiety.

 

– Living in fear –

 

Marie Cedile dreads hearing that she’ll be among those to lose their jobs at French shoe company Andre, which filed for bankruptcy on March 21 before going into receivership.

Under the only takeover offer on the table, just half of the 450 staff would be kept on.

She’s worried that at the age of 54 and having spent all her working life at Andre, she’ll have trouble finding a new job.

“I have customers whom I fitted for shoes when they were little and who come today to get their children fitted,” she said.

One of her two daughters died aged 29 last year of brain cancer, she said.

“Fortunately I had my work, relationships with the customers, that helps.”

After 30 years she still earns the minimum wage — 1,250 euros a month.

Just over 1,000 euros goes on rent for their flat in the Morangis suburb of Paris.

“You need two salaries to cover it. My husband is unemployed but he’s younger than me, he should find a job,” she said.

“I’ll take anything if I’m laid off, even if it means cleaning houses, I’ll find something.”

 

– Alone at the bar –

 

The barstools at Cafe Fili, the Mediterranean restaurant in Washington where Zac Hoffman works, are now mostly empty, as customers prefer to sit outside.

“I don’t feel like I’m back to work. I don’t have bar guests. The restaurant’s never full ’cause it can’t be,” the 28-year-old said.

Restaurants have been Hoffman’s life since he took his first job as a prep cook aged 15.

But six years ago he realised that he preferred working behind the bar, where the customer is always close and making new friends — never a bad thing as a candidate for the local area council — is easy.

He used to make up to $40 an hour, mostly from tips.

But after a period of unemployment when businesses shut down as the pandemic intensified in mid-March, he now makes at most $25 an hour.

What worries him most, though, is whether local businesses will have to close again, in which case he believes most would never reopen, or whether he or his coworkers will be next to get the virus.

“All of our interactions are kind of governed by this anxiety of possible death, which is not really where we want to be,” he said.

 

– ‘Pushed to the bottom’ –

 

Mexican tour guide Jesus Yepez has been sleeping at a homeless refuge after being evicted from his rented accommodation in the capital’s historic centre early this month.

“I was born on a cosy mattress in Coyoacan (a bohemian district of Mexico City where Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky lived) but the vagaries of life have pushed me to the bottom,” the 65-year-old said.

Before coronavirus, he would earn 500 pesos (about $22) leading an hour-long tour.

But Mexico’s museums and galleries shut at the end of March as high season began and Yepez has struggled like many others in the tourism sector, which makes up 8.7 percent of GDP.

Early on, he had some savings, but they’re gone and tourists are not yet back.

His qualifications in architecture, international relations, English and French are of little use to him now.

“All that I ask is to get through this and find a retirement home to grow old in dignity. I’m not ill, just tired of life.”

By Deborah Claude and Marie-Pierre Ferey in Paris, Thomas Perroteau in Madrid, Ania Tsoukanova in Kiev, Jennifer Gonzalez Covarrubias in Mexico, Juan Sebastian Serrano in Bogota and Chris Stein in Washington