Invisible and Forgotten: France’s undocumented workforce

Despite their labour being integral in certain sectors of work, undocumented workers endure unjust working conditions and exploitation by their employers. Legal frameworks on regularisation through work exist in France. However, the disproportionate power it places on employers, makes it complex for France’s estimated 900000 undocumented migrants to navigate the system.

On 7 December 2021, it was a normal day at work for 23-year-old Diaw. As he went about unloading and sorting parcels at the Chronopost warehouse in Alfortville, there was commotion outside. A strike had been organized by his undocumented co-workers. They were all demanding for regularisation.

“When the managers arrived at the scene, they dismissed their demands and said they didn’t recognise any of them,” he recalled. The workers on strike—whom he addresses as comrades—had been at the warehouse for several years, according to Diaw. They held the same job as him.

Diaw–—who asked to use his last name—is from Koussan, a small village in Senegal. He came to France in late 2019 and has worked at Chronopost for nearly two years. At first, he didn’t want to join the strike. His initial plan was to remain in the job for a minimum of two and a half years and then request his employer to help him through the regularisation process. 

Diaw was trying to meet the prerequisites of the Valls circulaire to be eligible for regularisation. The rules require a minimum of three years of residence in France; proof of at least eight months of work over the last two years (or 30 months over the last five years); and proof of current employment or a promise of employment.

When Diaw witnessed his coworkers’ struggle, he realised that his regularisation process would be difficult as well. Nearly a month after the strike began, he joined. “When you don’t have the papers, you are outside the law. We need it to lead a normal life like others.” 

Still, Diaw and his comrades mostly remain in the shadows and are among hundreds of others currently striking against unjust labour conditions in the Parisian region. For instance, the workers at DPD in Le Coudray-Montceaux–a subsidiary of La Poste–have been on strike for the past six months. The workers at RSI in Gennevilliers–a temporary employment agency specialising in construction–are on strike for over five months.

These workers are among some 900,000 undocumented migrants in France, who are trapped in a system that forces them to endure unjust work conditions, to meet the unrealistic conditions for regularisation. 

Meanwhile, candidates in the ongoing French Presidential elections have largely failed to address the situation of undocumented workers. For instance,  Macron’s “rethinking the republican integration model”, promises to make issuance of long-stay permits conditional on « real efforts at professional integration, » among other things. 

Eric Zemmour, the far-right candidate, has promised to create a ministry of « remigration » if he is elected president. The ambitious project aims to “send back one million » foreigners in five years.

Some candidates on the left addressed the need to regularise undocumented workers. However, they did not make it to the second round of elections. “Once foreigners are here, I refuse to treat them badly, we must treat them with humanity,” said Jean Luc Melanchon, the France Insoumise candidate, during a debate with Éric Zemmour in January.

Strikes – a tool of resistance

When Diaw expressed interest to participate, one of the delegates of the strike advised him to stay at the job for a few weeks. Because the workers had planned to expose Chronopost to Alfortville’s mayor, they needed proof that undocumented people were working in the warehouse. While safety concerns stopped some workers from participating in the strike, Diaw agreed to speak to the mayor.

About a month later, one morning in January, the workers brought the Mayor to the gates of the warehouse. “The delegate called me. He asked, ‘Are you ready?’ I said yes.”

Diaw exited the warehouse wearing his uniform. His jacket had “Derichebourg » printed on it—the name of the interim organisation through which Chronopost hires its workers. “I told the mayor that I am undocumented and that there are more men like me inside.”

While they gained the support of the mayor to continue their protest safely, their regularisation process will not move forward without their employer acknowledging their work.

Being on strike until their demands are met also means an income stoppage. Chronopost workers have gone without salaries for four months. But it’s a risk they are willing to take. “What choice do we have?” said Diaw. 

The Valls Circulaire and the burden of proof

The Valls circulaire is one of the wins achieved by the « All Undocumented Workers Strike” that lasted from 2008 and 2010 across France. The strike called for clear regularisation guidelines for undocumented workers. As a result, in November 2012, the Valls circulaire was added to a law called the Code of Entry and Residence of Foreigners and the Right to Asylum (Ceseda). 

According to the Valls circulaire, in order to be regularised, undocumented workers must prove three years of residence in France, eight months of employment in the past two years and a promise of future employment. On the other hand, it is illegal in France to employ undocumented people. This makes it highly complicated for undocumented workers to gather the proof required for regularisation.

“The circular has many flaws, but the only gain was that it recognized the labor of undocumented workers, which wasn’t the case before,” says Jean Albert Guidou, secretary of the immigration project at the ​​General Confederation of Labor (CGT), in Bobigny. One of its major shortcomings, according to Guidou, is that a worker’s case heavily depends on the documents provided by the company. In other words, it is the employer who has power over whether or not a worker becomes regularised. 

It is important to note that the Valls circular, as its name suggests, is only a circular and not a law, hence not legally binding,” says Isabelle Denise, legal head of Human Rights League in Paris. It is an arbitrary set of guidelines for good practices prefectures can adopt while examining the cases undocumented workers. 

Ultimately, the prefectures are not obliged to regularise the workers, but can use their power to do so if the conditions are met. “Often what’s not explained is that it was not a text to regularize undocumented workers; the text exists to tell the prefecture, don’t forget them,” she said.

Therefore, even if the workers procure the required documents from their employers, the prefectures can still reject their application. This decision cannot be contested before a court. 

The onus of avoiding arrest for staying illegally in France also falls on them. Getting  caught further complicates their chances of regularisation. For instance, it might land them in a detention centre.

Why does this invisible workforce exist?

Diaw describes his job at Chronopost as a job that nobody wants. His workday starts between 2 and 4am. All parcels must be sorted before 7.30 am for pick-up by the delivery workers. “Our bosses say: ‘if you don’t do it fast, I’ll replace you tomorrow.’ They know we are undocumented and we don’t have much choice,” Diaw said.

Diaw must reach work using the unreliable public transport services post-midnight. Some days it takes him two hours to reach work. He must complete a workload worth eight hours in his four hour shift. With an average monthly income of some 700 euros, Diaw supports himself and sends money to his family back in Senegal.

“At least I live here with my father and brother, so they pay the rent. It’s not the same for the others. They don’t have anyone here. It’s hard,” he says. 

Guidou of CGT, says, “These are sectors where work cannot be outsourced to countries where cheap labour is available.” The sectors that often employ undocumented are cleaning, restaurants, construction and logistics.

The maze of subcontractors and employer impunity 

“In the majority of the cases, the employers’ impunity is total,” says Thomas Dessalles, labour inspector in Paris. Dessalles is also a CGT trade unionist at the Ministry of Labour. He says there is a lack of will from the state to put an end to the abuse of undocumented workers by their employers. “This situation makes it possible to provide employers with a workforce that can be exploited at will.”

Cracking down on the exploitation of undocumented workers is a difficult process. In the case of Chronopost workers, all of them–including Diaw–were hired by Derichebourg, an interim organisation, which onboarded them to Chronopost. 

According to Guidou, this classic arrangement exists solely to shift the blame to another party. The temporary nature of the work contracts allow employers to fire undocumented workers overnight without any legal obligations. It also puts maximum pressure on the worker: If they refuse to accept the work, there is always a replacement.

Diaw claims that his Chronopost managers were aware that most of his colleagues were using fake identities to get the job. He argues that there are systems in place to verify if the social security numbers they provide are valid. “It won’t show up if it’s fake,” he said.

When asked to comment on the issue, Chronopost issued a reply to EDJ. In their reply, Chronopost confirmed that it uses service provider companies to aid with loading and unloading activities and to meet its customers’ needs. However, it did not mention the name of the service provider. It further mentioned that despite the checks deployed to verify the identity of those working at the site, some people have entered through ‘fraudulent means.’

“We strongly condemn this type of practice and remind our service providers of their obligation to guarantee compliance with French legislation by ensuring that the people they employ and who come to our site are legal,” they said.

Chronopost also claims that the service providers’ contract at the Alfortville site was terminated in February, following its failure to comply with the law. The termination will be effective from 28 May, according to Chronopost’s email. Derichebourg did not reply to EDJ’s request to comment on the issue.

In October 2021, CGT wrote an open letter to Elizabeth Borne, the Minister of Labor, to draw attention to another strike launched by an undocumented worker collective in Vitry Sur Seine, a Parisian commune. It addresses the issue of companies taking advantage of the vulnerability of undocumented workers.

It states that it is the responsibility of the employer to provide the two documents required for regularisation. First, the CERFA form N°15186*03, the application for a work permit to hire a foreigner residing in France.  Second, the certificate of concordance, to confirm the workers’ identity, if they had used an alias to get the job. Both must be issued and signed by the employer. However, in most situations the employers refuse to issue them.

Regularisation for all

This isn’t the first time undocumented workers are protesting against Chronopost and its interim organization Derichebourg. A 2019 strike against the same branch in Alfortville led to the regularization of 73 undocumented workers. “That’s the power of collective mobilisation,” says Dessalles, the labour inspector, emphasising on the fact that some of them didn’t even have to meet the criteria set by the Valls circular. “So these strikes are also a confrontation against the state which represses undocumented workers harshly.”

According to Dessalles, the best method to improve working conditions is through regularisation. “This will allow them to defend their rights without the constant threat of police denunciation or loss of employment.” 

He notes that within the labour inspectorate, not all officials act in favor of undocumented workers. It is up to independent officers to highlight these violations of rights and push employers to issue documents necessary for their regularisation. “There is no institutional will to defend equal rights,” he says.

Lastly because it isn’t an issue that concerns only undocumented workers. “Because a workforce without rights deteriorates the working conditions of all workers,” says Dessalles.

If Diaw becomes regularised, he doesn’t mind continuing the same job, as he will have adequate pay and employment benefits. He would also like to improve his French and enrol in training to paint buildings professionally. “We will end the strike right now if they agree to help with our regularisation, but we won’t give up until then,” he said.

Although Diaw does not know what lies ahead, he hopes most of his colleagues will be regularised. “My comrades, I know them very well. We are here to work, to save the families behind us. That’s why we left our country,” said Diaw.

Article and photo by Maithreyi KAMALANATHAN

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