Fri, Aug 06, 2004 - Page 6 News List

Paris is losing its helpful concierges to cheaper options

THE GUARDIAN , PARIS

They are as much a part of Paris life as crottes de chien on the pavement, but their numbers are dwindling and the fate awaiting many is causing concern.

Concierges, the women who wash the doorsteps, scrub the stairs, change the lightbulbs, take out the bins and distribute the post in the capital's apartment blocks, have been in decline since electronic entry code systems were introduced in the 1970s.

But as the older members of a dying profession retire and soaring property prices lead owners to get rid of those who are left to rent out their cramped lodges and use contract cleaners instead, the needs of impoverished ex-concierges are proving hard to meet.

The Paris town hall says up to 2,000 of the 35,000 concierges' jobs in the capital are disappearing each year.

The municipality does not have the vacant housing to accommodate them, and some 900 are on waiting lists for low-rent public housing, the town hall said yesterday.

For the profession's largest union, the Syndicat National Independant des Gardiens d'Immeubles, Concierges et Professions Connexes, the problems are manifold: concierges work for a pittance, retire on minimal pensions and can be legally evicted from their lodges as soon as they are no longer employed.

"It's a desperate situation," said a spokeswoman. "With what they earn, few have been able to put any money aside, still less buy anything of their own, and many have been here so long that they have only loose ties left with their home countries. Some literally face the street."

Paris concierges, who since the end of World War II have been almost invariably Portuguese or Spanish, typically earn 1,000-1,200 euros a month before tax and social security, leaving a net pay of about 600-800 euros. Their pensions are much smaller.

The small, dark one or two-room ground-floor flats in which they and their families live come with the job, but the job is 50 hours and six days a week.

Most work longer hours: letting workers into flats, watering plants, feeding pets, even taking care of schoolchildren for a couple of hours.

Many complain of residents' attitudes. "Some people really go too far," said Rosa Mendes, a concierge in Rue Condorcet in the 9th arrondissement. "They expect to be able to call on you at any hour and solve problems they've created themselves. And they're rude. We're not servants."

A recent survey of 2,500 concierges by the union found verbal abuse or violence had doubled in the past three years. Some 80 percent of those surveyed said they had suffered verbal attacks and 20 percent physical assaults.

"I understand, I suppose," one concierge said. "But it's sad, don't you think? A building without a concierge is a building without a soul, we say. An electronic entry code isn't going to lend you an umbrella, is it, or take delivery of your mail-order shopping."

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