In France, undocumented workers strike for rights

PARIS — Undocumented workers here have done what was once considered unthinkable. Starting in mid-April, they have organized a series of strikes and work stoppages. In some cases the workers, many of whom are African, even occupied their workplaces.

Many undocumented workers in France come from Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia, China, India, Mali, Egypt and Pakistan.

The majority of the strikers decided to join the left-led CGT labor federation (General Confederation of Labor). Solidarity movements to support the actions of the undocumented workers include large parts of the left.

There is wide support for these workers among the general public. Even some business owners express support for legalizing these migrants. Businesses are being pressured by the government to lay off undocumented employees, but at the same time they are confronted with a lack of workers.

These strikes and other actions are new forms of resistance in France to capitalist globalization, neoliberalism (known as free trade in the U.S.) and the repression of workers that follows these economic trends. A key aspect of the current struggle is that these workers constitute an important intersection between the workers of the “North” and the peoples of the “South” that could potentially bring together the workers’ and people’s movements of the two global regions.

In France as in other northern capitalist countries, the economic weight of the undocumented workers is significant. Significant numbers of undocumented workers labor in the construction, hotel, cleaning and delivery services sectors of the economy. They contribute to economic growth as well as to the financing of social programs.

But discrimination against the undocumented is considerable. While they pay for social programs through various taxes, they do not receive any benefits. Employers set up a competition between undocumented and documented workers (whether French- or foreign-born) that result only in lower wages and other benefits for the capitalists. Clandestine networks of labor traffickers are established to provide for the labor needs of the employers.

Repression against these “illegal” workers includes arrest, imprisonment and expulsion from the country.

Since Nicolas Sarkozy’s appointment as interior minister in 2002 and his election in 2007 as president of the republic, a reactionary hardening of immigration policy in France has taken place. The number of undocumented immigrants who are arrested and confined in 24 “administrative retention centers” or 185 “local administrative retention sites” and numerous “transit zones” has increased dramatically over the last few years.

Many are arrested at border crossings, on the roads or in railway stations. But raids and police roundups are also being used. According to the only nongovernmental organization authorized to be present in the detention centers — the interfaith group CIMADE — more than 40,000 are in such centers, up from 25,500 in 2004.

Many immigrant defense groups criticize the criminalization of migrant labor and the unacceptable conditions these workers — men, women and children — are subjected to in these jails. Some of the jailed migrants take desperate action in the detention centers, including hunger strikes, suicides and riots.

There are difficulties and possibilities in this new type of democratic struggle. But the openings for a united coalition for economic and social rights are there, involving everyone from the trade union movement to the youth and students to the homeless, to teachers, fishermen, truck drivers and even police. All these sectors of the population have risen up against some aspect of capitalist globalization and therefore can benefit from unity and solidarity.