Skip to content

Undocumented Workers: Living, Working and Mobilizing in Paris



Confronting the Immigration Issue at the French and EU Levels

25,000 in 2007, 26,000 in 2008.  These growing quotas for the deportation of undocumented people are a reminder to thousands of the threat of losing everything they have in France. It is impossible to find the exact number of undocumented people in France due to the clandestine nature of these people’s lives, but the most common estimate given by several French organizations is between 300,000 and 400,000.  Through the deportation quotas and the law adopted on the June 30th, 2006 on immigration and integration, the French government hopes to reduce the number of undocumented immigrants within its borders. Even people who fall into categories of applicants who were easily granted documentation in the past, for examples those with many years of residence or people married to a French citizen, now find it exponentially harder to earn the highly desired “residence card” (Carte de résident, CR) or the temporary residence card (Carte de Séjour temporaire, CST) which would allow them to remain and work legally in the French territory.

It is impossible to find the exact number of undocumented people in France due to the clandestine nature of these people’s lives, but the most common estimate given by several French organizations is between 300,000 and 400,000.

At the European level, immigration policy is also tightening.  European countries are working towards creating a global set of immigration policies. The countries in the Schengen space, through which immigrants can most easily enter the European Union (EU), are being held responsible for the illegal entry of people.  This subsequently puts pressure on countries such as Spain and Italy to more aggressively prevent immigration.  Most recently, on June 18th, 2008 the European Parliament adopted the “return directive,” which sets universal rules concerning the deportation of undocumented people from Europe to their country of origin.

The irony of these restrictive policies is that the French economy actually shows an increasing need for a foreign labor force. The aging baby boomer generation and the low French fertility rates (despite the fact that France’s fertility rates are the highest in the EU) are factors which have began creating a labor shortage in certain employment sectors. Historically, France’s response to labor shortages has been to import labor.  Today , France’s response is similar, but much more limited and hostile.  France’s immigration policy has facilitated agreements with African countries such as Congo, Senegal and Tunisia to address the labor shortage in highly qualified job sectors that at the same time control other types of immigration. These agreements allow the most qualified workers who specialize in fields with high labor demands to stay for a renewable three year period in France with a new residence card: the “competences and talents” card.  However, this law excludes low-skilled workers who may meet the needs of other employment sectors such as construction, restoration, cleaning services, security services, and agriculture. These sectors, usually neglected by French citizens, are often filled by documented and undocumented immigrants who do not benefit from the current immigration policies.

The foyers were aimed specifically at housing male workers for a temporary period.

Life in a Foyer

France has a history of welcoming foreign workers, but things began to change in 1974 due to the economic crisis. Between the 1950’s and 1974, during the period called the Trente Glorieuses (period of strong economic growth), the French government welcomed immigrant labor. One of the corollaries was to develop a housing policy to give immigrant workers a proper place to live.  This marked the creation of new foyers of travailleurs immigrés, special living quarters for immigrant workers.

The foyers were aimed specifically at housing male workers for a temporary period.  This particular social housing appeared at the beginning of the 20th century, allowing for the replacement of shanty towns and for the control of the immigration population in France.  Today, there are 700 foyers in France, 250 of which are in Ile de France, the Paris region. The foyers are owned by private actors and by the State. There are four main organizations that administer the foyers: Adef, Aftam, Soundiata and Sonacotra.

Today, many immigrant workers continue to live in “foyers.” The majority of occupants come from African countries, including Mali, Senegal and Mauritania.  According to the law, these foyers can only house documented workers. Sonacotra was famous for being law abiding and for collaborating with the police to enforce the rules and keep undocumented immigrants out of the foyer. In 2007, the Sonacotra administration tried to cleanse its extremely bad reputation gained from its treatment of undocumented immigrants and changed its name to Adoma.

Although foyers require legal documentation for securing lodging, many undocumented people get around this rule by using false documentation or other illegal means to live there. Ibrahima, for example, who arrived in France ten years ago, is undocumented and currently living with his documented brother in a foyer. He is convinced that, in his foyer, there is no risk of being harassed by the police: “police cannot enter the foyer” (Ibrahima).

There are many people who live in the same foyer for more than ten years and sometimes live there until old age and even death.

The idea that only documented immigrants live in foyers is not the only myth about them. Although originally created as temporary housing, there are many people who live in the same foyer for more than ten years and sometimes live there until old age and even death. Only men are officially allowed to live in the foyers, therefore many families are split apart, with wives and children staying in their countries of origin or living in poor neighborhoods of Paris.  Although sometimes complete family units do manage to evade policy and find housing in the foyers, it is very rare to find complete families there.

Foyers have been faced with numerous reactions from the inside and the society outside.   An example is a five year strike against rent in one of Sonacotra’s foyers.  Furthermore, Foyers have been attacked with criticism for nurturing communitarisme, which is widely feared in French society.  The French definition of communitarisme is the organization of  society according to communities sharing the same religious, ethnic or cultural values, which is contrary to the French ideal of  universalism, which is a vision of humanity based on the common nature of every individual.  The “Cuq report”, published in 1996 by the Parliamentary Henry Cuq, denounces aggressively the foyers as places of communitarisme, a “no man’s land” where illegal activities are the norm.

Many immigrants who come to France maintain strong links with their country of origin, sometimes making it difficult for them to establish a new home, a space of their own in French society.

Foyers are not only places for sleeping, but also for living.  Some foyers may include facilities such as barber shops, prayer rooms, and collective kitchens. Other foyers may even include language classes and other types of classroom instruction.  The foyers’ kitchens are open to everybody, and it is not rare to meet homeless or unemployed people taking advantage of the one euro  fifty-meals offered at the collective kitchens. Some foyers also organize “open days”, as the foyer Bara in Montreuil did in June 2008, in order to allow people to become more familiar with life in a foyer.

Most people find out about foyers through family and friends.  While foyers allow people to build networks, they mayalso be seen as an obstacle for the integration of immigrants. Dabo, a commercial-technician from Burkina Faso who has been living in France for five years, explains that a lot of inhabitants of the foyers “eat together, hang out at the foyer, and isolate themselves from the rest of French society” (Dabo).

Many immigrants who come to France maintain strong links with their country of origin, sometimes making it difficult for them to establish a new home, a space of their own in French society.

The reasons for immigrating are very diverse, as the researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research, Virginie Guiraudon, stresses. According to Guiraudon, immigrants come to France “to flee conflicts, while others come because they already have ties in France (children of migrants that do not fit family union criteria) or for work” (Guiraudon).  Most immigrants get to France legally and either overstay their visa, do not get asylum, or lose their legal status.

When people come to France to join their family or to earn money, they usually maintain strong links with their country of origin by building networks in France with people from the same origin or sending money to their family back at home.  Telephones and the Internet also allow people to stay in touch with their families.  However, an undocumented person trying to return to their country of origin to visit risks facing problems at the moment of re-entry into France. Furthermore, the return to their community comes with facing high expectations from the members of the family in their native country, expectations that are sometimes very difficult to fulfill. When speaking about his family and friends back at home, Dabo notes that “people do not understand that things are not easy here, in France, and that it is not possible to make enough money to support everyone”.

Being Legalized

Despite the strong solidarity networks that exist to facilitate the search for housing and work once in France, there are still many institutional barriers that undocumented workers face.  For example, the decree published on July 1st, 2007 regarding illegal work, forces employers to send their hired workers’ documentation to the prefecture, the French departments’ administrative agency.  Violaine Carrère, from the Group of Information and Support of Immigrants (GISTI), explains the different types of illegal work (Carrère).  The first situation is the most “illegal”, and corresponds to the total absence of a work contract, also known as clandestine labor. In this situation, the worker and the employer are considered to be violating the law. The second situation is presented when undocumented workers obtain a legal contract with their employer, while using legal documentation from a family member or friend or using false documentation. In these latter cases, the employer is at risk if it is proven that there was knowledge about the undocumented status of the employee.

After the publication of the decree, many employers grew fearful of the penalty and enforced documentation verification in their companies.  This led to the firing of employees who they knew were undocumented or they assumed to be undocumented. Ibrahima was one of these employees, who after three years of working at a famous restaurant was fired in November 2007, when his employer discovered that he had no papers.

Several organizations have joined together to form collectives, such as the 9th collective of Paris, which has come up with innovative and successful ideas for helping people attain their legal documentation.

On January 7th, 2008, authorities signed the  “exceptional admission to the residence of undocumented workers” also known as the Lefebvre’s amendment.  The amendment states that employers can facilitate the legalization of their undocumented employees at the prefecture.  If the prefecture approves the documentation, the undocumented workers are given a temporary residency card such as a “work-permit”, which has to be renewed each year. As Carrère explains, today this is the only way to seek legalization through work.

Struggling to Get Papers

Due to the immigration policy changes, unions, organizations, and collectives formed by undocumented people are getting organized to take advantage of this amendment to French law by putting pressure on employers’.mobilization.  Virginie Guiraudon, of the CNRS, reminded the authors that while she was being interviewed there were “many waves of mobilization by migrants” occurring throughout Paris.  Guiraudon informed the authors that undocumented migrants have performed occupations and other types of demonstration since 1996 and most recently, have started employing hunger strikes.

Several organizations have joined together to form collectives, such as the 9th collective of Paris, which has come up with innovative and successful ideas for helping people attain their legal documentation.  They organize meetings each Monday, and have office hours to individually help undocumented people during the week. One of the services they offer is the preparation of lists of undocumented people seeking legalization, which is given to the prefecture. Recently, a list of 100 names was sent to the prefecture and 28 people were called in, which is the first step towards the legalization process. French filmmaker Sylvain George, who is currently working on a documentary film about a transnational social mobilization of undocumented workers, chose to cover this autonomous collective because “it is one the most active collectives of undocumented people in France. Furthermore, it is a self organized collective where decisions are taken by undocumented people or ex undocumented people”.  Apart from sending lists to the prefecture, they also organize other activities such as general meetings and symbolic demonstrations in front of places like the Senate. They are not directly involved in workers’ strikes, but they support them.  Despite the evident success of the collective (last Monday, three  members were celebrating their legalization), some of the members of the collective feel neglected. The activist Behija Benkouka, recognizes that a volunteer dependent staff makes it very difficult to meet the needs of every individual who seeks helps.

All these collectives are built upon a strong social network of immigrants.

Most of the collectives for undocumented people are composed of African immigrants, but there are other collectives composed of different groups of immigrants as well. Benoît Clément, an activist in the Solidaires Union Syndicale, a syndicate composed of 39 French unions, mentions, for example, the existence of an Asian collective in the district of Belleville, a district in Paris. But Asian collectives do not normally organize strikes or occupations in their places of work: “they are not looking for legalization through their work”, said Clément. Some collectives are also composed of people from countries such as Iraq, Egypt or Afghanistan and have very different goals.  Often times these collectives are seeking entry into England and Nordic countries.  What all these collectives have in common is that they are built upon a strong social network of immigrants.

While networks provide undocumented workers with an effective mechanism to overcome repressive immigration policies (networks used for the journey to France, finding employment, creating a new home in Paris, and maintaining strong links with the country of origin), networks have also proven to facilitate the organizing of strikes in attaining legalization.

Undocumented Workers Using Old Tools of Resistance

Workers’ strikes have historically served as a powerful tool of collective action to exert pressure on employers and the government in order to change labor policies.  Today, Solidaires Union Syndicale informants explain that workers’ strikes are being employed as “the greatest and perhaps the last hope” by many undocumented immigrants. Raymond Chauveau, secretary general of the Confédération générale du travail (CGT) of Massey, one of the five major confederations of trade unions and the second largest in France, has been identified as the first to experiment with strikes among undocumented workers.  Recently, many unions and organizations have adopted Chauveau’s approach to help the plight of undocumented immigrants, 80% of whom are estimated to be part of the workforce in France.

Sarkozy’s repressive immigration policy and Lefebvre’s amendment signaled that it was time to employ an old tool of massive resistance to accelerate change for a highly vulnerable population.  Filmmaker George explained that the French have always used strikes as a way to effect change, however, what makes these recent workers’strikes so unique is that they are the first to be organized by undocumented immigrants.  Guiraudon informs us that since 1996, undocumented immigrants have used hunger strikes, occupations and other forms of demonstrations to fight for human rights, but indeed, this is the first time that we see undocumented workers’ strikes.  Furthermore, undocumented workers are not only using strikes to fight for the respect of their labor rights granted by French law, but also fighting for the right to live, work and stay in France legally.

The “first wave” of strikes began on April 15, 2008 in 40 different sites in Paris alone.

The “First Wave” of Strikes:  A Newfound Hope for Legalization

News of Leffebvre’s amendment to Sarkozy’s hard-line immigration law triggered a newfound hope in strikes to pressure employers to support undocumented people’s application for a CST, specifically, a work-permit.   Currently, the situation of many undocumented workers is that while they are paying taxes and into their social security, they do not have the opportunity to collect their benefits because they are working with the documents of others or with false documents.  Thus, Guiraudon explains that the goal of these strikes is not only to attain legal status, but also to gain recognition for past contributions to the pension and welfare system.

The “first wave” of strikes began on April 15, 2008 in 40 different sites in Paris alone.  The strikes occurring largely in Ille de France, particularly in Paris, included about 1,000 undocumented workers occupying their workplace for about six weeks.  Solidaires’ informants reported that this “first wave” included a majority of male workers from Africa, especially from Mali and Senegal.

Many of the participating undocumented workers had exhausted all other means for legalization and found themselves willing to risk it all through strikes organized by union federations including CGT, CNT and Solidaires.  The unions have provided the workers with guidance and advice that has facilitated the process for many of these strikers.  However, due to French law, which does not allow for the unionization of workers in businesses consisting of less than ten employees, many small business employees were found with little hope to be organized to strike..  For those undocumented workers who do not have any other option but to act alone, Solidaires has created the General Assembly, a group for isolated undocumented workers to educate and empower them about their labor rights.

The goal of the CGT was to show that entire chains of restaurants rely on the exploitation of undocumented workers.

Due to the vulnerability of this population, it has been proven that in order to carry out an effective strike, undocumented workers need  logistical and legal support, which unions are willing and able to provide.  The strong presence of the unions was has been instrumental, if not necessary, particularly in the initial stages of mobilization of undocumented workers.  As explained by Carrère and volunteers at Solidaires, the unions have acted as the guardians of these undocumented workers, giving workers the confidence to organize a strike and exert pressure on the employers to support their work-permit application and/or accompany them to the prefecture.

The strike sites were numerous, spreading across different industries in Paris.  The estimated 40 strikes organized by the CGT included in the “first wave” consisted of occupations.  Among these sites were famous restaurants such as Buffalo Grill and Chez Papa.  The goal of the CGT was to show that entire chains of restaurants rely on the exploitation of undocumented workers.  Solidaires organized workers in the cleaning service, EDRA, in the 12th district and workers in Pasta Papa, Charlie Birdy, and Market in the 8th district , all high-class restaurants.

Work-permits were granted by the prefecture to approximately 1,000 undocumented workers who had organized with the unions.

The end of the “first wave” was marked by a great number of legalizations, which indicates a significant success.  Work-permits were granted by the prefecture to approximately 1,000 undocumented workers who had organized with the unions.  Furthermore, and perhaps, most importantly Guiraudon states that the strikes have managed to put the “issues of illegal workers back on the agenda”  Furthermore, the strikes and movements by organizations such as Reseau Education Sans Frontieres (RESF) are contributing to the change in the way that French society is looking at their undocumented immigrant population.  These movements are helping French people humanize undocumented workers as they discover that their neighbors and co-workers are undocumented.  Guiraudon also reminds us that despite the success for those who were able to file for legal status under the “first wave” of strikes, we must not forget that it “could be very dangerous for those who filed for legal status and did not get it: they can easily be found and deported now that they have volunteered information to the authorities.”  With Guiraudon’s cautious remarks in mind, the “first wave” of strikes should be seen as a victory in one of the many battles that lay ahead for undocumented workers.

The “Second Wave”

The positive results of the “first wave” of strikes gave way for a “second wave” of ongoing strikes starting in May of 2008.  On May 20th,  workers from about 52 different businesses were reported to be on strike.  About 1,000 undocumented workers are said to be participating in this new wave of strikes.  These strikes are largely concentrated in restaurants, companies providing cleaning services and in construction (Maltby).  Strikes and occupations are once again the strategy used by the workers at chain restaurants such as Quick, Bistrot Romain on the Champs Elysées, Chez Papa and Pasta Papa.  Furthermore, Carrère states that in this “second wave” of strikes there may be new movements of undocumented workers occurring outside of Ile de France, although small in numbers.  The results of the “second wave” of strikes cannot be measured at the time due to fact that the strikes are still occurring and will continue until the workers see the results they want: a work-permit.

Autonomy and Conflict in the “Second Wave”

Walking into the courtyard of the Bourse du travail, a place where several labor unions are housed, it was evident that the “second wave” of strikes was not going to be over any time soon. An entire group of undocumented workers acting without union support decided to demand their legalization by occupying the Bourse du travail building on May 2nd, 2008.  All around the perimeter of the building there are strikers on patrol duty keeping a watchful eye on who goes in and who goes out.  The strikers are more than happy, however, to allow sympathizers take a peek into the courtyard and even buy a postcard with sketches of different scenes of the strike, a volunteer contribution to the strike by artist Laura Genz.  If the sympathizers seem  trustworthy enough, they may even be allowed to speak to one of the four (non-paid) delegates annually elected by each of the four organizations united under Coordination 75, the group occupying the building.  In this current “second wave” of strikes, the Bourse du travail has been a buzzword since early May 2008, when Coordination 75 decided to act independently and organize all those who were not protected or supported by the unions.  Coordination 75 decided that it would be most effective for undocumented workers to take over the Bourse du travail, instead of striking at the work site.

The occupation includes men and women of all ages.  There are 60 to 70 children under the age of 8 and one in every three strikers is a woman.

In an interview, Sissoko Anzoumane, a spokesperson for Coordination 75, informed  us that there are between 1,200 to 1,300 people currently occupying the Bourse du travail (Anzoumane).  The coordination is offering the strikers housing and free food in the building.  The majority of strikers at the Bourse du travail are from Africa, but among the crowd of undocumented workers there are also Latin American and Asian undocumented immigrant strikers who are all affected by the same repressive immigration policies.  The spokesperson informed us that the occupation includes men and women of all ages.  There are 60 to 70 children under the age of 8 and one in every three strikers is a woman.  The majority of strikers are coming from the restaurant, cleaning, construction and security industries.

CGT and Droits Devant!, an organization which has provided undocumented workers with legal support  saw that Coordination 75 was effectively occupying the building and initially  offered support.  However, support has been blocked by current conflicts over the autonomy which Coordination 75 has already established for itself.  As a matter of fact, Anzoumane stated that CGT and other actors asked Coordination 75 to end the occupation, because they saw it as counterproductive  and detrimental to the efforts of unions, which wanted to focus specifically on pressuring individual employers, but  Coordination 75 delegates were not giving up the fight so easily.  They had chosen to ignore the CGT’s plea to end the occupation and continued their cause until those in their movement were legalized.

Undocumented Workers’ Strikes: Resistance and Integration

What makes these recent waves of strikes so special? These are the first organized workers’ strikes organized by undocumented workers around a common struggle, that of legalization.  These strikes are not only being utilized as tools of solidarity and resistance when facing hard-line immigration policies,, they  are also serving as proof of integration of immigrant strikers.  These undocumented workers fighting for their right to work and live  in France with a path to legalization are demonstrating their willingness and ability to integrate into their host society through the very means in which they have demonstrated resistance. Fighting for the respect of rights and for change in policies through strikes is a strategy which is very common in the French (re)public, and could even be said to characterize the French society. At a time when repressive immigration policies are enforced and quotas for deportations increased, more and more courageous undocumented workers might be willing to risk it all for legalization and go on strike, just as any French worker would do in defense of his/her rights.   In doing so,  these revolutionary undocumented workers  may become increasingly recognized as an integral part of the fabric that composes the French Republic and perhaps celebrated as members of society and even citizens.


Personal Interviews:

Round Table with Solidaires Union Syndicale: Coupe, Annick, spokesperson of the Union; Clement, Benoît and Aloujes, Isabelle, both activists in Solidaires: Paris and coordinators of the undocumented people for the union. Paris, France.  July 1, 2008.

Anzoumane, Sissoko.   Spokesperson for “Coordination 75”, which organized the occupation of the Bourse du travail.  Paris, France.  July 1, 2008.

Benkouka, Behija.  Activist in the 9th collective of undocumented people – ex undocumented. Paris, France.  June 30, 2008.

Carrère, Violaine.  Member of the GISTI group. Paris, France.  July 1, 2008.

Dabo, 34 year-old, from Burkina Faso. He arrived in France five years ago and is working legally as a commercial technician.  Paris, France.  July 1, 2008.

George, Sylvain.  French filmmaker.  Paris, France June 30, 2008.

Guiraudon, Virginie.  Researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), in Lilles.  Paris, France.   June 30, 2008.

Kanoute, Ibrahima.  A 27 year-old, from Mauritania. He arrived in France ten years ago and is still undocumented.  Paris, France.  July 1, 2008.


Foyers de Travailleurs Immigres. Relancer la construction, renover les lieux de vie et reconnaitre de nouveaux droits, published  in Paris: Collectif Pour l’Avenir des Foyers, 2007


Bohlen, Celestine.  “French illegal workers’ strike puts their value to test,”  Bloomberg News, May 27, 2008.

Maltby, Edward.  “Undocumented Workers’ Struggle in France- a Second Wave,” Workers Liberty, June 3, 2008.