Union action wins legal status for migrants

Submitted by martin on 9 February, 2008 - 7:49 Author: Ed Maltby

In France, bosses have limited powers to regularise migrant workers; and in recent strikes in the Essonne region, this has been used against them.

Last summer, at nine branches of the Buffalo Grill steakhouse chain, around 30 staff went on strike to demand that their bosses regularise them. They occupied one restaurant for several days, and most of them won legal status.

Shortly after the Buffalo Grill strike, workers at an industrial laundrette called Modeluxe struck in solidarity with their undocumented co-workers’ demands for regularisation.

The strikes have changed the way union activists and sans-papiers look at the issue. “Before,” explained the CNT militant, “sans-papiers would just join a union for protection on workplace issues. But now they’re starting to join because they see that as a way to win legal status. It will take a while to build up momentum, and people are naturally nervous about reprisals if they strike, but it’s begun.”

A number of union branch activists all over France have started targeting sans-papiers, distributing a leaflet which explains about rights at work, rights which apply even if to those working illegally, and the ways that unions can protect them from deportation as well as the actions of employers.

“Union bureaucrats don’t want to touch this”, a socialist activist told me, “why would they? It’s a lot of fuss, it upsets their cosy desk jobs.”

but the government is stepping up its war on undocumented migrant workers. Sarkozy’s ministers have multiplied police round-ups and deportations of suspected migrant workers.

French bosses like this. The CGT union say that in the fast-food industry, bosses are “systematically” employing workers they know to be undocumented, in order to deny them employment rights. A CNT union activist working with sans-papiers in Paris, told me that “employers use immigration law like a whip: they say to undocumented workers, ‘if you don’t work harder, I’ll report you’.”

Another activist told me that the hotels in which undocumented workers and their families are lodged at extortionate prices and in terrible conditions enjoy the tacit support of the government: “At Saint-Ouen there are two hotels, with one shower, one toilet each in the lobby, with 468 families living in them. The cops know and they don’t touch the place. I think the government subsidises them. MEDEF (equivalent of the CBI) want these workers to stay in France.”

More heat is being generated by a series of revolts in detention centres. An African union activist was recently taken to a detention centre next to Charles de Gaulle airport. The socialist activist tells the story: “He raised hell, made speeches, organised a revolt. There were demonstrations, hunger strikes, riots. The authorities quickly moved him, to Vincennes, where he did it again. People were setting fire to their beds, refusing to go back in their cells after exercise, refusing to be counted. They made the place ungovernable. Some wrapped razor blades in chewing gum and swallowed them, so that they’d have to be taken to hospital. It’s very dangerous, but it means that they have to let you go. You can only be detained for so many days before they must either deport you or let you go.”

At a recent demonstration outside the Vincennes detention centre in support of the protestors “a lot of sans-papiers turned up, which was brave. There were people there from the CNT, especially members of our cleaners’ section, which is growing fast. There’s going to be another demonstration soon.”

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