Trade union support for undocumented migrant workers is taking place in an atmosphere of growing stigmatisation and social tension
Last month I returned to the banlieues of Paris on a research visit hosted by CRESPPA-CSU, four months after the November attacks, and during the week of the terrorist attacks in Brussels on 22nd March. Whilst in Paris issues of social division and community cohesion inevitably dominated political debates and press headlines.
Anecdotally, reaction in the mainstream media in France in the days after the Brussels attacks suggested a lack of recognition of French immigration history and the citizenship status of ethnic minorities from the banlieues. Calls were made by some members of the public to send the terrorists, many of whom had French or Belgian nationality, ‘back home’. This sentiment has been somewhat fuelled by François Hollande’s proposals, as a direct response to the November 2015 attacks, to make controversial changes to the constitution to strip militants convicted of terror attacks of their French nationality (proposals which have now been dropped).
Other important contextualising factors feeding political debates and public perceptions around immigration and social exclusion include the current and emerging tensions surrounding the migrant and refugee crises in Europe, and restrictions of movement and increased police powers as a result of France’s continuing ‘state of emergency’ (état d’urgence).
As was the case in the Paris attacks, the terrorists in Belgium grew up in the suburbs of Brussels, with high levels of unemployment, particularly amongst second and third generation youths of immigrant origin.
Immigration flows to France are often linked into debates on models of integration and patterns of social exclusion of migrants. France’s assimilationist model has in many ways failed in relation to the integration of past flows of immigrants. As a result second and third generations of immigrant origin find it difficult to access employment and often remain trapped in the banlieues of Paris.
I was in Paris to follow up on my research on trade union responses to immigrants and those known as the sans papiers (undocumented workers) (which Part I of this blog explored), and found a somewhat depressing picture emerging. Immigrants and especially the sans papiers are increasingly being stigmatised and placed under restrictions while trying to live and work in France. This situation isn’t being helped by the current political debates mentioned above.
Signs initially looked better for the sans papiers when in 2012 the circulaire de regularisation, which sets out guidance and defined sets of conditions for administrators processing regularisation claims was introduced in response to growing unrest among sans papiers workers. Trade unions, particularly the CGT, have been an important resource for the sans papiers in fighting for criteria for regularisation and in making sure they are applied, even though the circulaire has no legal status and doesn’t give automatic rights to work permits. The strategy seems to be working and since 2010 the union has obtained some 10,000 regularisations of migrants.
At the same time there have been increasing sanctions on employers found to be employing undocumented migrants, with two circulaires in 2013 against illegal work and against irregular immigration. Also, there are some who are critical of the circulaire de regularisation, claiming that there have been fewer regularisations per year since its introduction. During last month’s field work with my French colleague Dr Sylvie Contrepois, one undocumented Senegalese worker, who had found regular work in France for 24 years, suddenly found himself without work as a result of the greater restrictions on employers, and without recourse to any rights to unemployment benefit or state aid.
The CGT, one of the largest French trade unions has provided a ‘permanence’ (advice service) for the sans papiers in the banlieues of Paris since 2014. The union has between 70 and 80 sans papiers attending the ‘permanence’ every week with the aim being to help the migrants to obtain work permits, and the immediate aim to protect them from having problems with employers and the police.
The advice given to the sans papiers demonstrates the uneasy nature of accessing labour rights as an undocumented worker in France. One Senegalese union activist we spoke to (still a sans papier himself) explained that many of the migrants did not understand the process of accessing their rights in France. There were heated exchanges between the sans papiers and the union activists advising the migrants, with some suggesting that it was particularly the Bangladeshi migrants who weren’t so aware of the process for obtaining papers. In asking what the process was we discovered that it was important first to obtain fake papers, then find a job, stay in that job for a certain amount of time, collect some pay slips and then come to the union, who would then be able to help with their case for a work permit. The union was able to draw on the conditions set out in circulaire de regularisation to make the case for regularisation, even where workers were working with fake papers.
By offering a service to undocumented workers, in spite of its service-based appearance, the union aims to identify and call out poor employer practices and force them to apply regulations. The broader political goal is to fight illegal work, prevent social dumping and to encourage self-organising and future mobilisations of sans papiers. The union also hopes for the greater integration and involvement of the sans papiers within the wider union. Whether trade unions are able to build and sustain this kind of solidarity and action remains a key challenge, but an important one in such uncertain times.