French charter airline Air Méditerranée in the next few weeks will move part of its operations to Greece to cut costs, creating jobs in the debt-stricken country while leaving around 85 workers in France out of work.
The move, first announced in December, is both a reminder of the high costs that French companies face and a glimmer of hope for Greece, which could benefit from investment thanks to its lower staffing costs.
"Many employers are watching what will happen and the government's reaction to the relocation of air transportation companies," Fatiha Aggoune-Schneider, the head of France's cabin crew and pilots union said.
"Today it is Air Méditerranée, but who will it be tomorrow?" she added.
Air Méditerranée, a charter carrier based near Toulouse which flies to destinations including Egypt and Turkey, set up a redundancy scheme for 85 flight staff including cabin crew and pilots last November after failing to come to an agreement with unions on a productivity increase, its chief executive said.
Its Greek staff numbers about 100 and is rapidly growing.
"We are fighting against foreign airlines based in France, which have employment costs way inferior to ours," Antoine Ferretti said.
"What I see is that French flight staff do not work to the maximum of what the French law allows," Ferretti said, adding that unions had ignored the "extreme turmoil" faced by the sector.
The redundancy scheme was approved by the French Labour Ministry and the company's workers committee, allowing the company to move forward with its plans despite union calls for a strike and an appeal to the government in an open letter.
Now the airline plans to hire new flight staff under Greek contracts while it transfers five of Air Méditerranée's 10-jet fleet to its Greek unit, Hermes Airlines, created in June last year and which until today operated a single plane, Ferretti said.
"I could have kept more planes in France, but for that it would have been necessary for my staff to work more, within the legal framework," said Ferretti who operates mostly Airbus single-aisle passenger jets.
In April, Hermes Airlines will start flights to France, Israel and Italy from Heraklion and Rhodes.
The SNPNC-FO union said Air Méditerranée was trying to exempt itself from health and pension social charges owed by French companies, adding that some 30 staff were offered jobs in Athens for a salary of EUR€900 per month, 30 percent below what they make today.
Ferretti denies having offered jobs in Greece to any of the 85 staff, let alone with a pay cut. Ferretti said the pay of Greek employees was in line with Greece as a whole.
"It is true that salaries in our Greek unit are lower than French salaries, but they are based in Greece," Ferretti said. "We have not offered anyone a pay cut in our Greek unit."
"The French market is contracting. Remaining purely French in this context is very dangerous," Ferretti added.
French industry, whose contribution to the country's wealth creation has gradually shrunk, faces tough competition from global technological progress and cheaper production and staff costs in Southern and Eastern Europe and emerging countries.