Regularisation of undocumented immigrant workers

During 2008, undocumented immigrant workers have been engaging in lobbying, demonstrations and strikes to support their efforts to have their situation in France regularised. The movement seems to be having some success, and by the end of August, almost two thirds of applicants in the Paris region had achieved regularisation. However, cases of discrimination are not uncommon, and fears arise that many undocumented workers are not being represented.

New rules on regularisation

Two circulars (in French) issued by the Ministry of Immigration, Integration, National Identity and Co-development (Ministère de l’immigration, de l’intégration, de l’identité nationale et du développement solidaire) in the winter of 2007–2008 specified the conditions for ‘regularising’ immigrant workers from outside the EU without the required residence documents. The circulars implement the Law of 20 November 2007 on controlling immigration, integration and asylum, which stipulates a policy of ‘selective immigration’ (FR0605039I). They make provision for the following measures:

  • possible regularisation for workers employed in occupations that are ‘under tension’ – in other words, where labour shortages exist – if they can present payslips;
  • a list of 30 specified occupations ‘under tension’ – immigrants from countries outside the EU who work in these jobs can claim to reside legally in France.

Before these recent legal measures, the regularisation of undocumented immigrant workers, without any conditions, was possible after working for 10 years in France. Now, the 300,000 to 400,000 illegal workers in the country live – even more than before – under permanent threat of being expelled if their situation is not regularised, as their employers have to give their papers to be checked by the authorities before recruiting them.

Undocumented workers’ movement

In February 2008, a strike was organised by undocumented workers at a restaurant in the Avenue de la Grande Armée in one of the most upmarket parts of Paris. Seven cooks, who were undocumented workers, were then rapidly regularised.

On 15 April 2008, 1,000 applications for regularisation were made to the prefectures in the Paris region of Île-de-France. Some 10 days later, almost 100 situations were regularised and the number of applications in Paris and the rest of the country continued to increase. At the same time, undocumented workers organised a strike picket at a workplace on the Champs-Elysées in the centre of Paris.

Throughout the spring and summer of 2008, other undocumented workers went on strike and organised pickets in front of their workplace or demonstrated in the streets, and even occupied the premises of the Ministry of Labour, Social Relations and Solidarity (Ministère du Travail, des Relations Sociales et de la Solidarité). They sought to draw attention to their cases when they were applying for regularisation, and were supported by local trade union officials – especially those of the General Confederation of Labour (Confédération générale du travail, CGT) – as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

In August, the CGT national officer responsible for this issue, Francine Blanche, calculated that almost 900 out of 1,500 applicants had been regularised in the Île-de-France region. She criticised the fact that the way of dealing with the applications varies from one prefecture to another.

At the beginning of September, strike pickets were gradually lifted when undocumented workers obtained their authorisation to stay – and sometimes even had a pay rise. However, mobilisation has continued among those who have not yet been regularised, such as women who are employed part time in personal services and do not earn the equivalent of the national minimum wage (salaire minimum interprofessionnel de croissance, SMIC).

Cases of discrimination on the increase

The cases of undocumented workers that have been described in the press are varied, according to an article (in French) of September 2008 in Liaisons Sociales Magazine. Some workers have the support of their employer or an employer organisation in their regularisation applications, whereas other employers dismiss their undocumented workers, sometimes leading to complaints being lodged with the High Authority for Combating Discrimination and Promoting Equality (Haute autorité de lutte contre les discriminations et pour l’égalité, HALDE) (FR0605049I).

A HALDE report (in French, 4.2Mb PDF) published in May 2008 reveals that the most frequent form of discrimination is that based on people’s origins (27.1% of cases). The Interministerial Department for Combating Illegal Work (Délégation interministérielle à la lutte contre le travail illégal, DILTI) estimates that the proportion of all illegal work offences related to ‘employing foreigners without work permits’ almost doubled between 2004 and 2006: from 8.4% of cases to 14.8%.

Commentary

Much evidence indicates that undocumented workers are employed more frequently in certain sectors of economic activity, such as hotels and restaurants, construction and industrial cleaning, as well as in temporary agency work, Moreover, they are generally employed in small companies where trade unions often have few members or are not represented at all. The current number of applications for regularisation seems low, given the estimated number of undocumented workers. This estimated total is suggested, for example, by the numbers of people using the State Medical Assistance Programme (Aide médicale d’État, AME) for people with very low income (FR0510101N), as revealed in the July 2008 AME report (in French, 195Kb PDF).

Benoît Robin, Institute for Economic and Social Research (IRES)

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