France: sans papiers strikes gaining ground

Submitted by Matthew on 18 March, 2010 - 3:31 Author: Ed Maltby

More than five months since it began, a strike movement in France of thousands of undocumented migrant workers is continuing.

Concentrated in the Paris region and outlying suburbs and strongest in the construction, restaurants and cleaning sectors, around 8,000 “sans papiers” workers have been striking and occupying workplaces, demanding a change in immigration law to grant rights and papers to all undocumented migrant workers in France.

The strength that the sans-papiers workers have acquired through their strike has surprised the bosses and put them on the back foot.

Christian Mahieux from the union Solidaires told us, “A minority of capitalists, some quite big ones, are now arguing in favour of regularisations — some of them because they believe themselves to be ‘ethical’, and others because they are desperate to resolve the strike. Either way, there is confusion within the ranks of MEDEF [the French bosses’ union] on this issue.

“The government has issued two circulars offering concessions — but they were only offering a very limited expansion of the criteria for regularisation, so they were not taken seriously.”

The ways in which these workers have solved the specific organisational problems which confront them are instructive and inspirational.

Many migrant workers find themselves in a minority within their workplaces, or are isolated in jobs where they work alone for a contractor. The movement has solved this problem by organising for all migrant workers across a given sector to take part in a picket or occupation of one specific site, such as the offices of an exploitative temping agency or one particular building site.

Migrant workers are especially vulnerable to the law — they have to organise secretly for fear of instant dismissal with no recourse to the courts; they are constantly in danger of being arrested and deported. Bosses are also prepare to use violence against picket lines, whether by calling in the police or hiring private security.

And migrant workers need material support throughout strike — in the first place food. Support committees made up of Parisian trade unions, NGO-style groups and community activists have sprung up to meet this need. The Support Committees are an example of a broader social movement being cohered around a particular workers’ struggle in a similar way as we have seen in this country (although on a smaller scale) as with the 1995-8 Liverpool docks lock-out and the 1984-5 miners’ strike.

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