“There is no future without equal rights for all!”: Migrant struggles in France

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After enduring 7 long months on strike, camped outside during France’s unprecedented heatwave last summer and followed by the rain and cold weather of the winter months, a group of undocumented migrant postal workers in France have claimed victory. Originally from former French colonies such as Senegal, Guinea, and Mauritania, the workers went on strike last June, in protest at the backbreaking and dangerous working conditions they experienced at Chronopost, a wholly-owned subsidiary of French postal service La Poste.

After a brief occupation of a Chronopost building, from which they were evicted by court order, they set up camp in front of the warehouse in Alfortville, southeast of Paris. Slowly their numbers rose as they were joined by more undocumented workers from other companies in the area, eventually swelling their number to over 150 people.

Illegal working

There are over 300,000 undocumented migrants living in France. Most do not have permission to work, leaving those who do work illegally at risk of exploitation. 

“Entire parts of the economy would not work without immigrant workers” Marilyne Poulain, a CGT trade union representative working with undocumented workers, told the press during a separate strike last October.

The Chronopost workers have claimed that they are made to work long hours, 6 days a week, with a monthly wage of just €500 (compared to the national average of €2988). This was for doing the most backbreaking and dangerous work that other, less precarious, workers would refuse to do.

"If we complain, they tell us: 'If you no longer want to work for us, that's okay, there are plenty of other undocumented migrants who will,'" Amadou, one of the strikers, told InfoMigrants. recounting his bosses threats.

Similar working conditions led 140 undocumented migrants successfully strike for their rights last October in companies around Paris.

Such working conditions for undocumented migrants were recently condemned by the French labour court. They ruled in favour of a group of 25 undocumented construction workers, originally from Mali, against their previous employer. The company had given the undocumented workers the most dangerous and arduous tasks - because they were undocumented. The employers had even refused to call the emergency services when one worker fell from scaffolding and lay unconscious on the ground. The court found they had suffered ‘racial and systemic discrimination’, a first for France, and awarded them over €1 million in damages.

Pass the buck

As they cannot work legally, many undocumented migrants (sans-papiers in French) borrow or rent a residence permit from someone else to secure employment. Workers says that bosses know that it’s not them when they apply, but employ them anyway. Later, they hold their precarious status over their heads.

While the occasional company - such as pizza chain Big Mamma – admit to knowing hiring people with false papers, many deny it is the case. So it was with the Chronopost workers.

A key frustration of the strikers was where to direct their demands. Chronopost, itself a subsidiary of La Poste, in turn subcontracts out to Derichebourg, which in turn uses another temporary employment company. All denied responsibility. Indeed, when the left-leaning French daily Liberation sought comment from the companies about the strike, all denied even employing them. 

“We have no striking workers, no undocumented workers” said a spokesperson for Driechbourg, one of the companies, referring the Liberation journalists on to another subcontractor. This was repeated over and over. "Journalists always talk about exploitation by employers, but it is people who exploit themselves,” said an employee from another of the companies.

“Are these workers 'imaginary?”, asked the the paper. Rather they are the workers that we – the companies involved, but also society at large - “don't want to see”.

This "cascade of subcontracting" helps to hide responsibility, according the union reps who supported the strike, and it helps “dilutes responsibilities and makes it possible to exploit undocumented migrants”, Christian Schweyer, an activist with a sans-papiers collective, told Le Monde. Getting one of the companies to claim responsibility was particularly important. The workers, as is common with such strikes, wanted to not only improve their working conditions but ultimately to change the situation which makes them exploitable – they want a permit a permit to work legally in France.

There is a route, through employment, to be able to "expectationally" regularise your undocumented status in France. But the catch-22 is that the payslips and work contracts necessary for such an application are not in your name, but in the name of the person whose permit you used to get the job in the first place. Therefore companies must provide a form which says that you who are applying for regularisation is the same person who the payslips and so on relate to. Many companies do not want to do this because they don’t want to admit hiring illegal workers, and also, according to workers, they would lose the leverage which made them attractive workers in the first place.

Support

The strikers received support from Luc Carvounas (MP for Val-de-Marne, who raised their "inhuman treatment" in the National Assembly) and the Communist head of the departmental counsel Christian Favier. 

Favier championed their “exemplary fight for equal rights” which "resonates across the country", He linked the strike to the other struggles taken place in France, such as the large-scale movement against pension ‘reform’. “In the current social context, this victory is a strong signal.’”

A group of 18 left-leaning counsellors for the department released a statement in support of the strikers' "courageous struggle", and called for the regularization of the undocumented workers: “There is no future in our societies without equal rights for all!” The local municipality and departmental authorities also provided support, in terms of sanitation facilities, and local groups brought the strikes food and clothing.

It was the intervention of local politicians that helped resolve the situation, by getting the local prefecture, which deals with regularisation requests, to examine the cases of the strikers – even though, because Chronopost refused to engage, the workers did not all of the necessary paperwork.

In December, and then earlier this month, 26 of the 27 Chronopost workers received a temporary work permit (The 27th is still under consideration).

The workers did not know yet if they had jobs to return to, or if they would take them, but more important was the ‘papers’. “The papers will change our lives: we will be able to work normally.”  Abdoulaye told Le Parisien. “For us, that's good, that's for sure, recognizes Cissé told the paper. But the struggle continues for our friends who are with us and still have no papers.”

The workers gave special thanks, among their varied supporters, to the 129 migrants from other companies who supported the struggle against Chronopost for many months. The prefecture agreed to examine the files of the these migrants workers, and their paperwork was submitted last week.

Removal of the camp was the part of the agreement, and after a celebration party, the strikers left what had been their homes for the past 7 months. Yet a press release announcing the end of the strike made their intentions clear: while the camp may be gone, “the mobilization continues.” 

Luke Butterly is a writer based in Belfast. His work focuses on the politics of immigration in Ireland, Britain, and France.