“We are coming out of the shadows”

Submitted by AWL on 6 June, 2008 - 11:34 Author: Ed Maltby

Ed Maltby reports from Paris

Large numbers of migrant workers who are working illegally in France (known as “sans papiers” — “without documents”) are striking in Paris and elsewhere, to demand their “regularisation” — to have the right to stay in France and the same rights as other workers.

On 15 April, a wave of strikes involving around 1,000 migrant workers in different workplaces erupted in Paris. The strikers were supported by the CGT, Solidaires, and the CNT union federations, amongst others. Many of the strikers from the original wave of strikes have now won regularisation. But the 15 April strike movement has acted as a clarion call to other sans-papiers workers in France, and given them courage to take industrial action to win their papers, and to overcome their fears — of deportation, of the bosses and the law, and the sense of their own powerlessness as sans-papiers.

Since 20 May, over 1,000 undocumented workers in 52 new workplaces have taken part in a second wave of strikes. As before, these strikes are concentrated in restaurants, cleaning and building. Many of the strikers have occupied their place of work, a form of industrial action recognised under French law.

For some time, French bosses have had limited powers to regularise their employees. But they use this as a weapon, threatening employees with deportation or refusal of regularisation for minor disciplinary offences. The strikers are turning the bosses’ power around, and striking to demand that their employers use their powers to regularise their workers.

I spoke to migrant workers on strike in Paris. The workers are from four occupied chain restaurants Quick and Bistrot Romain on the Champs Elysée, Chez Papa and Pasta Papa.

At Quick, the 13 strikers are members of the cleaning subcontractor EGEN-France, which is known for employing cheap night labour. Its employees will work eight hours a night for around 800 euros a month. Baradji, a Congolese worker, who has lived in France six years without papers, told me how it began: “On the 15th of April, more than a hundred sans-papiers at the big SENI cleaning firm in Paris went on strike. We have colleagues there, friends there: so the four sans-papiers workers from the EGEN team that cleans this Quick got together and said, if they can do it, why not us? We spoke to some people we knew from the SENI strike, and they told us how to do it. We had a meeting with the CGT.” After that, they collected fellow EGEN employees working at other sites, and prepared the plan to occupy the Quick site on the Champs-Elysée: “Through personal contacts, we rang around other sans-papiers we knew who work for EGEN elsewhere. There must be about 30-50 of them, but only 13 were prepared to come forward and strike here.” The strikers sleep downstairs, and during the day they rope off a part of the restaurant, hang up flags and leaflet passers-by while the Quick keeps on operating around them. They feed themselves through donations from the public.

The EGEN workers organised themselves originally, through personal networks and their own initiative, before approaching the CGT. But the logistical support the CGT gave them, as well as legal support, was invaluable: “When the CGT are there, the boss knows that he can’t fool us, because the CGT rep knows the law inside and out. The boss here put a lot of pressure on us, telling us that we had no right to be here, telling us that the CGT were tricking us and that the strike had ruined our chances of getting regularised, but the CGT rep set things straight and told him where to get off. At one point, he came into the restaurant at 2am, thinking that the CGT wouldn’t be there, shouting, “Get up, get up, I want to negotiate with you!”. The rep was just next door, though — and the boss cleared off quick when he showed up!”

The CGT rep assigned to the EGEN strike gave his thoughts: “The major lesson from this strike is that you have to give confidence to the workers. The whole movement has shown that the thing you need for success is confidence at the grassroots. Previous big sans-papiers strikes like Grande Armée or Modeluxe have given individuals, and also organisations like the CGT, the notion that we can go into this and win. That wall of fear is breaking down, the question now is one of organisation.” He stressed the fact that the sans-papiers are relying upon their strength as workers: “This is not about humanitarian concern any more — we are showing that sans-papiers have a real economic role and real economic power in society. It is on that basis that we are fighting.

I spoke to Djimo, a Senegalese striker at the Bistrot Romain restaurant next door. Inspired by the 15 April strike wave, workers there held two meetings with the CGT over four weeks, tracking down sans-papiers colleagues through friendship groups, by talking to people in the big hostels where sans-papiers tend to live, and through talking to staff in other restaurants in the city, where workers from the Champs-Elysée site would sometimes be sent to cover other workers’ hours. Of about 60 strikers in Bistrot Romain across the region, 33 from various sites are occupying Champs Elysée. The date of 20 May was fixed by the CGT when the workers finally approached them. Djimo said that the example of the 15 May, combined with the law that gave bosses the power to regularise workers, made him overcome his fears: “When you’ve been living like this for 10 years, under difficult conditions, paying your social security but having no right to benefits, making unsuccessful regularisation requests, and a law like this comes... Well, it’s not perfect, but it gives you a chance. We knew we had to go for it.

“It’s difficult to unmask yourself after living in secrecy for so long, to announce to the whole world that you’re a sans-papier. People see you on TV, friends and partners find out sometimes, you’re completely laid bare. That was difficult at the start, for someone who is used to hiding himself. But if you don’t get into the action, you don’t get anything. I’ve got a wife, two months pregnant, and rent to pay. I don’t know what’s going to happen — but I know I’ll be safer with papers than without. Now, if the police search me on the street, it could all get much worse very fast. I’m not safe as I am.

“At the level of the law, we were worried too — worried that we were doing something illegal with the strike without realising. In the first couple of days the management put a lot of pressure on us, trying to talk to us one by one, confusing us with talk of the law, threatening to call the police. The police did come, but just to check that everything was OK, not to arrest us, but the boss said that we were all going to be deported. That was scary. But during our meetings with the CGT, the union activists explained the law to us, and we researched it ourselves”

The restaurant chain Chez Papa has been on strike since the 15 April. 39 undocumented workers are occupying the flagship restaurant at Louis Blanc — 21 of whom have won regularisatio since the start of the strike. I spoke to Achheb, who had been elected as a steward by the strikers because of his experience as a worker in a hospital in Algeria. “Most of the sans-papiers on strike in the last two waves have been farmers from West Africa. France was their first experience of unions and wage labour of this kind. I’ve been elected a leader because I have a little industrial experience. We have a little leeway to strike and organise here, because sans-papiers tend to stay in one job longer than regularised workers and students, because it’s difficult and dangerous to swap jobs too often. That means that we tend to be quite experienced in a given restaurant, and the boss doesn’t fire you at the drop of a hat, because he needs you.

“It started in January or February. The employer fired a couple of workers because their papers weren’t in order. He did it to make it look like he was complying with the law, to keep the immigration police off his back. But we saw that this was a threat to all of us.”

The sans-papiers in Chez Papa started to have meetings on Sundays, first in a MacDonald’s, later in a union office. They tracked each other down, often knowing each other from being moved around the restaurant chain by the employer: “but restaurants held under a different franchise are more difficult to organise, because staff don’t move from one franchise to another.” By mid-April, they were sufficiently numerous to strike, and their elected leaders fixed the strike date together with the CGT.

At the Pasta Papa restaurant, the strikers are in a more difficult situation, because of the intense repression from their particularly conscious boss. As elsewhere, the strikers collected colleagues from across the city, and arrived on the morning of the 20th of May to begin their occupation. The manager appeared, and according to one of the Solidaires activists who was there, “He announced, ‘I’m Mussolini’s nephew!” His first reaction was violence, throwing glasses and chairs at the strikers, until his wife ran to restrain him. “He wasn’t crazy, he was very controlled”, the activist told me, “His eyes were calm as he was attacking us, he was testing us, trying to provoke a response. He’s not mad, he’s just a fascist, and he knows exactly what he’s doing.” The boss cut off the strikers’ water and electricity, and loaded up the furniture into a van and drove off.

Another problem is that the boss has a direct line to Romania, from where he can hire scab labour — “the undocumented Romanians are in such a precarious situation that they couldn’t join the strike; the man claims he can get a worker from Romania to France in under a week.”

Nevertheless, the strikers at Pasta Papa are being well-supported by the public and the labour movement, and are determined. I asked one striker if he had a message for undocumented workers in the UK. He replied,

“If we look on our situation with fear, it will be difficult to change anything, we'll be afraid to show ourselves. But sometime or other you have to show yourself — you can’t build yourself a life by staying in the shadows. You’ve got to come out of the
shadows, despite the fear of deportation. After all, who is it who benefits from our fear?”

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