(eng) Precarious legal situation, precarious work (fr)

Wed, 29 Jan 1997 18:22:09 +0100 (MET)

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Alain Morice CNRS - Centre d'e'tudes africaines

We can call them 'clandestine immigrants', 'foreigners in an irregular situation' or simply 'without papers': it changes nothing. What these people have in common is the fact of being here and of needing, in order to survive, to resort to precarious expedients. Some have freely chosen French soil. Others have come under the threat of persecution, or because their lives there had no future, or even to join those who had earlier made this choice. For twenty years the authorities and legislation here have multiplied the difficulties facing their efforts to enter and live in France. Without much success, seeing that we know very well that the force which attracts them is stronger than the means employed to send them away. So, xenophobic laws prove more effective in weakening all foreigners (including those 'in good order') than in stopping immigration. And above all in enriching the entrepreneurs of black work: for the latter, such laws represent a genuine windfall.

All the 'irregulars' have two characteristics in common: they cannot or don't want to leave; they find themselves in a situation of economic fragility, given that the law forbids them from entering into a contract in the workplace. Taken together, these conditions ensure that the 'irregulars' accept anything that can provide access to resources.

How is this survival organised? Basically around two poles (which obviously are not mutually exclusive): a) stipends or pseudo-stipends, obtained principally through 'black' work, within working conditions which smack of domination and super-exploitation; b) various activities which institute dependency and indebtedness, even criminal pursuits.


Unlike what some have suggested, black work is not the prerogative of illegal immigrants, who are rather few within the French economy (while the most fantastic figures are quoted here, the actual numbers seem to be fewer than 100,000). But whatever the facts, a tenacious equation suggesting that 'illegal foreigners=clandestine work' is widely broadcast by power and the media. One thing is certain: in order to work, foreigners lacking a residency permit have no alternative other than undeclared work. Since 1991, refugees have no longer been automatically granted a work permit during the period in which their case is being examined. This hypocritical restriction is quite revealing, given that those seeking political asylum have no intention of leaving the country before their case has been decided; thus the inducement to seek illegal work is almost official. In practice not only the sans papiers, but rather all immigrants constitute easy pickings for the entrepreneurs of certain sectors of activity, who are very conscious of the fact that stipends and working conditions seem much better than those offered in the immigrants' countries of origin. Such sectors are well-known: above all the building industry, then the hotel and restaurant industry, food preparation, agriculture, cleaning firms, the [colf] (?!), firms that specialise in leafletting. [...] Since the enactment of repressive legislation, a growing number of immigrants find themselves in a precarious situation. Result: they are knowingly pushed towards the clandestine labour market and even into criminal pursuits. [...] In this manner the relations of force between the supply and demand of labour change, with the blessing of the law, to the profit of the entrepreneurs of illegal work. The ideology of such entrepreneurs is paradoxical: on the one hand, they are not the usual xenophobes (which doesn't mean that some of them aren't racists) and they leave the task of sounding off about 'the foreign invasion' to politicians; on the other hand, they support the measures taken against foreigners, because they think that without them such workers would be less vulnerable. These bosses lack spirit: as capitalists, they find employees through little effort, with the certainty of profit and the best possible productivity/cost tradeoff. Therefore there will always be sufficient labour power (even if for various reasons not all are always available) for the functioning of a growing market of black labour. The repressive laws against clandestine work are dissuasive, but they also allow the entrepreneur who employees clandestine workers to pressure the latter. Indeed, the boss uses the fact that s/he is taking risks to impose any working conditions on their workers, since these have no recourse any legal assistence or - above all- to job security.

We can verify however that, in the sectors that make great use of a clandestine workforce, 'hiring' no longer occurs so much at the level of the larger firms as of the smallest.

For example, in the building industry, the large companies retain a minimum of employees and contract out work to a multitude of small firms, which engage in a wide range of forms of black work . . . You can see the same mechanism in the clothing industry, where 'manufacturers' (that is, the firms that sell the garments under their labels) leave production to [contoterzisti - sorry, I can't find this word in a dictionary]. In both cases, this externalisation pushes the economy further in the direction of casualisation, the highest level of which is the employment of workers without rights.

The sans papiers therefore are the front line of a general movement towards the 'flexibilisation' (or 'casualisation') of labour. They are not the cause of unemployment, as the political class argues of immigrants in general: they are the pawns [attori forzati] of a calculated use of unemployment as a means to generalise precarious situations (a process, which if we think about it, threatens the population as a whole). The bosses enjoy a huge profit, thanks particularly to the workers' precarious legal situation: deprived of rights, they are frequently linked to community networks, in which explotiation is obscured under the profile of solidarity. In the face of a common enemy represented by the State, the employer can make their 'dependent/employee' believe that he/she is protecting them and doing them a favour. This paternalistic discourse is nourished twice over by the workers' legal exclusion and by the economic crisis.


But not all belong to networks. Many immigrants in the sans papiers collectives have progressively found themselves in a situation of isolation and financial poverty, often after the loss of a job due to the non-renewal of a temporary residency permit. These trajectories take the form of a downward spiral in which all difficulties are cumulative. Examples: monitoring by the police prevents them moving in search of work; just as it becomes impossible to pay bills, the phone is cut off and the risk of eviction becomes real; the school refuses to enrol children in the after school program (a work contract is needed in order for parents to qualify), which increases the clandestine worker's risk of losing their job because they can no longer keep up the hours; without social and therefore medical cover, the smallest health problem becomes a catastrophe. [...] The more debts accumulate, the more the slide into dependency consolidates itself. This carries great risks to which the authorities seem oblivious: faced with meet ing obligations, at times the last recourse is delinquency. The market in false documents is flourishing. In order to meet the cost involved, their purchasers are tempted to further dependency upon the network of illegal activities. It then becomes easy for politicians to denounce this illegality and to call for even stronger repression. This marginalises the sans papiers still further, and the spiral continues. The State is playing a dangerous and cynical games because it knows full well that 1) it will never catch out all the 'clandestines'; 2) the economy needs them.

But submission has its flip side, as the movements of the sans papiers of 1996 have shown with a breadth and determination which has surprised everyone. These movements are characterised first of all by the reconquest of a dignity and independence, above all towards the associations which in specialising in the defence of immigrants, long encouraged passivity amongst the latter.It is reasonable to think that, in the face of the demand for a collective normalisation [of the sans papiers' situation], there is more to the government's intransigence than meets the eye. Officially, it entails sending a 'strong signal' to the countries of high migration, to let them know that it is pointless and painful to seek to come to France. But there is perhaps a more fundamental objective: to impede the sans papiers, and with them all of those in a precarious legal situation, becoming an autonomous political force.

Therefore the discussion on their particular place in the economy, which has been accentuated in this document, is an imperative for this movement.

------------------------- Diffusion : European Counter Network ECN - Paris e-mail: ecn@altern.org http://www.anet.fr/~aris/


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