Letter from France

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Undocumented workers in Paris are waging an extraordinary battle to win their rights, reports Vanina Giudicelli

On 12 October 1,500 sans papiers - immigrant workers denied residence papers - began a wave of strikes and workplace occupations around Paris. Every day a hundred more joined them, until by the end of November the movement was 5,000 strong.

The media has paid very little attention, but every report that does appear exposes the racist attitude of both the government and employers.

The undocumented workers are generally employed in sectors of the economy where work cannot be relocated abroad, such as catering, construction, cleaning and security services. Their bosses have no qualms about infringing workplace legislation, imposing longer hours, failing to pay wages, or redundancies.

These strikes have highlighted an obvious fact: sans papiers are workers like any other but their exploitation is worse because they are without residence rights.

As striker Gary Diabate explains, "Our struggle concerns all workers. The rights of French workers are also being undermined by the downward pressure on wages exerted by the employment of sans papiers. We don't have a minimum wage. That helps the bosses lower the wages of all workers."

Immigration is a major ideological issue for the government. In the current crisis it needs scapegoats. This task is being made easier by the lack of response from the leadership of the Socialist opposition and obstacles being put in the way of struggle by sections of the trade union bureaucracy.

Last year 29,000 sans papiers were deported and there was a notable rise in police identity checks on blacks and Arabs. One minister declared that, when it came to Muslims, "It's when there are too many of them that problems occur."

The government spends a million euros a day on the occupation of Afghanistan but had no hesitation in deporting three Afghan sans papiers seeking asylum. Immigration minister Eric Besson (a former Socialist) launched a high profile debate on what it means to be "proud to be French", explaining that "the republican heritage contains a certain number of values that we should never have abandoned to the [fascist] Front National."

Politically, then, there is a lot at stake. Strikes by sans papiers last year marked an important turning point in the struggle against the Sarkozy government's racist policies. This year the strikes involve more workers as they link up with others in the same situation to occupy their temping agencies' offices. The mobilisations are backed up by networks uniting various associations and trade unions, and support groups have been set up across Paris.

The strikers demand revision of the criteria governing the regularisation of all sans papiers. Seventy workers are on strike in a Kentucky Fried Chicken in central Paris, 26 of whom are French, participating out of solidarity. Elsewhere occupiers are being forcibly ejected by security or face police intervention.

One group of sans papiers have occupied the site of a tramway being built by Paris city hall. The local mayor, a Socialist, told them to return to work because they were "holding public transport passengers to ransom".

But the determination is unrelenting, as one of the tramway occupiers, Sadio Dianka, explains: "I'm not afraid, I'm fighting for my rights and for my future. The involvement of the unions and support groups has lifted our spirits. The bosses need us. One of them has called five temping agencies and hasn't found a single worker to employ. But we, the strikers, are refusing to accept insecure working conditions like before. We've had enough now. We want to be regularised."

Each victory is giving confidence to all workers.

In one cleaning firm in Montreuil, Paris, 23 sans papiers were regularised after a year on strike. Their spokesperson summed up the mood: "Be brave and determined. We work here, we pay their taxes and their national insurance but we have no rights. It's wrong. We have the right to be regularised. We have to fight to win this. Let's build this struggle and fight it to the end!"