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1 By going on strike, undocumented migrants showed that they have a place in the French labour market and demanded the regularisation of their residence on the basis of their employment status. Back in 2008-2009, more than 1,000 undocumented workers had gone on strike, massively emphasising the contradictions between their employment situation and migration policies. Described as “unprecedented”, these strikes were the first mass, coordinated mobilisation of employees of small and medium-sized enterprises, agency workers and undeclared workers (Barron et al., 2011). Given that it was a strike movement mobilising particularly precarious workers, seemingly without capital, these strikes could indeed be described as “improbable” (Collovald and Mathieu, 2009; Hmed, 2009). It is true that they distilled a number of obstacles to collective action, according to the sociological hypothesis: “scarcity of activist skills, weakness of collective frameworks, weight of a collective identity that is poorly valued or even stigmatised [...] rise in precariousness and flexibility, de-unionisation and/or weakening of union presence and decline in social conflicts” (Collovald and Mathieu, 2009: 120). However, ten years on, it was clear that the labour strike had become a permanent element of undocumented migrants’ repertoire of action. [1] Based on a study of the strikes that took place between 2017 and 2019, supported and organised by the CGT, [2] this article shows that the undocumented workers’ strikes that marked the 2010s stemmed from the appropriation of conflictual routines, which manifested themselves as much on the side of the undocumented workers and their CGT supporters as on the side of the State and employers. By establishing conflict as routine, these strikes delineate an institutional landscape that integrates the issue of undocumented workers into an economic, social and regulatory framework by putting it on the trade union and political agenda. In this way, while removing certain obstacles to collective protest for undocumented migrants, the appropriation of conflictual routines allows the accumulation of activist resources and the opening of spaces of negotiation. The recent labour strikes by undocumented migrants thus appear less improbable and more characteristic of a move to strategic action [3] in the absence of genuine labour migration policies.

2 The first part of the article looks back at the mobilisations of 2008-2009. Questioning the notion that these strikes were improbable, we seek to demonstrate the coalescence of a number of economic, social and political factors and forces that made these strikes possible and that led undocumented migrants to take up the labour strike as a means of action and struggle to obtain documents. The second part reviews the employment conditions and work situations of the 2017-2019 strikers in order to show the forms of precariousness that they experience. Contrary to what might have been expected in comparison with the 2008-2009 period, the illegal practices [4] suffered by undocumented workers were no less numerous. Finally, the third part of the paper seeks to highlight the forms taken by the appropriation of conflictual routines in the context of the strikes of 2017-2019. To this end, the article compares different points of view of undocumented workers, as well as CGT activists, employers and State agents.

Research Methodology and Organisation of the Survey

3 This article is based on research work initiated in January 2013 as part of a doctoral thesis. Originally concerned with the study of the link between employment and administrative status in terms of regularisation of residence through work, this research was initially underpinned by a field survey conducted within a trade union advice desk for undocumented workers in the Paris Departmental Union of the CGT. This is a support service for the preparation of applications for regularisation under the provisions on limited leave to remain through work, as defined by the Valls Circular of 28 November 2012, and as applied at the Paris prefecture. The fieldwork conducted for this first survey made it possible to gather various materials: observations of the daily work of the union advice desk, meetings with the Paris prefecture for the examination of undocumented workers’ applications, accompaniment to the prefecture’s front desks, conduct of around thirty interviews with workers and trade unionists and analysis of internal correspondence between the union and the prefecture. By reconstituting the regularisation process as it was carried out in Paris, one of the major results of this survey was to show that the norms applied by the Paris prefecture to assess undocumented workers’ applications for residence are based on a meritocratic logic that produces a model of an ideal type of undocumented worker who can be regularised (Zougbédé, 2018).

4 The second survey following the doctoral thesis led to the collection of further material. From the beginning of the 2010s, the CGT was involved in the continuation of strike movements alongside undocumented workers, demanding the regularisation of their administrative and work situation and the revision of the criteria for limited leave to remain through work. The impact of these strikes on the daily work of the trade union advice desk led me to reformulate some of the linkages in my research. Thus, following completion of my thesis, I became more interested in the ways in which these labour strikes, led by the CGT, questioned the place of undocumented migrants in the labour markets and challenged the legitimacy of the criteria for regularisation through work. This paper is based on the ethnography of four strikes by undocumented workers hired as temporary workers and subcontractors between 2017 and 2019 (see Table 1), and my participant observation. It thus draws on several survey materials: observations at meetings to prepare for the strikes and on the picket lines; analysis of leaflets, letters and internal memos between the CGT, employers and the prefectures (mainly the Paris prefecture); monitoring discussions and negotiations between the employing companies, the unions and the Paris prefecture; interviews with strikers and CGT activists, etc.

Table 1: Description of the Four Strikes which were the Focus of Ethnographic Study

Figure 0

Table 1: Description of the Four Strikes which were the Focus of Ethnographic Study

* The names of the companies as well as the first names of the striking employees and trade unionists have been changed.
Source: Ethnography of the four strikes cited.

Making Undocumented Migrants’ Work Visible through Strike Action and Defining its Boundaries in a Circular

5 While, as Collovald and Mathieu (2009) emphasise, there are a whole series of obstacles making certain mobilisations improbable, undocumented workers’ strikes appear to be improbable in several ways.

2008-2009: An Improbable Mobilisation?

6 The 2008-2009 strikes were widely perceived as improbable and unprecedented. Firstly, because they constituted the first large-scale and coordinated strike in France of employees of small and medium-sized enterprises, temporary workers and undeclared workers. Secondly, because it was the first time that undocumented workers massively emphasised the contradictions between their work situations and migration policies, combining their demands for regularisation with a labour strike (Barron et al., 2014). Finally, the improbability of the 2008-2009 strikes relates to the resolution of the conflict. These strikes ended in June 2010 with the drafting of an addendum to the Guide on Good Practice for Prefecture Front-desk Officers. While this text initially concerned the examination of strikers’ regularisation applications, it subsequently served as the basis for the Circular of 28 November 2012, known as the Valls Circular. Thus, these strikes did not give rise to a law, but to a regulatory text, which enshrines work as a possibility to obtain a residence permit. This places the work of undocumented migrants in the register of administrative law.

7 However, these strikes, as unprecedented as they were improbable, can be explained by the coalescence of several factors and forces that made them possible. As far as the factors are concerned, a quick examination of the set-up of these strikes shows that the labour strike reappeared in the field of action of undocumented migrants [5] because of the revival of migratory utilitarianism (Morice, 2001), introduced by the Law of 24 July 2006. By bringing back work-related residence permits for foreigners arriving in France with a work contract, this law reintroduced labour immigration. In practice it allowed the assertion that the work of undocumented migrants is a structural fact of certain economic sectors, since, although they are excluded from the new legislation, undocumented migrants work largely on a declared basis. The labour strike thus became a possible action and a means of obtaining residence permits. Moreover, at the centre of the first strikes that broke out in October 2006 and spring-summer 2007, there was Article 40 of the Law of 20 November 2007, known as the Hortefeux Law. This article established the labour strike as a new way of fighting to obtain documents (Barron et al., 2011: 41). By making it possible to obtain an exceptional admission to residence through work for employment sectors experiencing recruitment difficulties, this provision formalised the possibility that work could be a source of regularisation (Barron et al., 2014: 725-726). Regarding the forces at play, it was the combined action of the various supporters of the strikes, [6] as well as the involvement of trade unions (particularly the CGT), which added the labour strike to the undocumented migrants’ repertoire of action and put it on the agenda of collective bargaining and industrial relations.

The Valls Circular: A Text with Little Binding Force

8 It was initially a mesh of legislative measures that, throughout the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, put an end to labour immigration and dissolved all possible bases for the regularisation of residence. It was then, paradoxically, through a legislative gap in Article 40 of the Law of 20 November 2007, [7] that the labour strike became a means of struggle and making demands for undocumented migrants. At the same time, as if in response to the 2008-2009 strikes, two years after the end of the strikes the Valls Circular of 28 November 2012 established work as a ground for obtaining a residence permit, setting out criteria that were intended to be clear and uniform throughout French territory. [8]

Table 2: Criteria for Obtaining a Residence Permit through Work under the Valls Circular

Figure 1

Table 2: Criteria for Obtaining a Residence Permit through Work under the Valls Circular

Source: Analysis of the Valls Circular, 2012.

9 As Table 2 shows, the Valls Circular provides a regulatory framework that sets out the conditions under which work can be a source of regularisation of residence. Nevertheless, certain employment situations are excluded: for example, part-time work, work in private homes, and undeclared work, which either do not allow for the number of hours worked to reach at least those of a half-time job, or do not result in the production of payslips. Furthermore, by making regularisation through work conditional on the presentation of payslips and an employment offer (using Cerfa form No. 15 186*03), part of the regularisation process depends on the employers. This dependence on employers – which is also submitted by the situation in the labour markets and by production downturns - can manifest itself locally in greater precariousness of undocumented migrants. The Valls Circular therefore seems to function less as a binding regulatory framework than as “safety valves, responding to the demands of undocumented foreign nationals made by solidarity associations, [...] used by various governments to reduce pressure without ever, in the end, fully resolving the issues raised” (Rodier, 1998: 3).

Recruiting Undocumented Migrants: The Benefits of Precariousness

10 In accessing employment under constraints, undocumented migrants endure particularly precarious employment conditions and work situations. [9] Thus, contrary to what might have been expected of the consequences of the 2008-2009 strikes, the breaches of labour law to which these people are subjected are no less numerous, and paradoxically are even justified by the existence of a regularisation circular. These illegal practices play on the precariousness of the situations, a precariousness that is not simply perceived as the intermittence or instability of work situations, but rather as being related to uncertainty and vulnerability (Jounin, 2008: 113).

Strategic Hiring: Organisation Based on Precariousness at Accord

11 Accord is an SME that has been in the cleaning business since 2013. It subcontracts part of its business for the major fast food chain AJ. The fourteen employees who went on strike in October 2017 worked there as cleaners. In the cleaning sector, employment and working conditions are particularly deteriored, and the Accord employees experienced this. Employed to clean AJ’s restaurants, they worked eight to twelve hours a day, without protection, as they had to pay for the equipment. They did not get paid for all the hours worked also due to the fact that they were assigned to work as security guards, keeping watch in the restaurants for five to six hours a night, waiting for AJ employees to arrive. These employees worked under their own name using false residence permits and Portuguese or Italian identity documents, at the explicit request of the employer. The latter knew that in the event of an inspection by the labour inspectorate, the company would be able to avoid liability for having employed undocumented migrants: only the exercise of certain professions is subject to a work permit for EU nationals. In the situation of these employees, the way in which the boss organises their exploitation by managing certain illegal practices can clearly be seen. Indeed, while the conditions of employment and work are questionable in terms of labour law (for example, the employees have security duties, for which they are not paid, when they are employed as cleaners), it is the absence of administrative status, i.e. the absence of residence and work permits, that creates these particularly precarious conditions and plunges the employees into situations of infra-law (Brun, 2004). It is therefore both the employment conditions and the work situations that underlie the precariousness observed and recorded.

Managing Illegal Practices by Forming a Core Group of Temporary Workers: The Horizon of Regularisation between Promise and Uncertainty

12 Khemako S., a striker at Enjeu Progrès in February-March 2018, was a thirty-one-year-old Senegalese man who arrived in France in December 2014. Just a week after his arrival, he was recruited as a labourer by the temporary employment agency Enjeu Progrès. He found his first temporary assignments through referral by his brother, Harouna, who had worked there for over seven years. During a discussion about his temporary job, he told me:


They know that when I get there [on a construction site], it’s no trouble for them. They know that when I arrive somewhere, I’m a worker. There are no problems. I know how it’s done, I respect my work [...]. When I come [...] each time they are motivated to give me the job. When it’s over, they give me other assignments. [...]. I can do three months, six months.

14 Describing a certain stability in temporary employment due to the recurrence of the assignments he is given, Khemako S. expressed a certain gratitude for the relationship of mutual trust between himself and Enjeu Progrès. However, rather than trust, it is a matter of forms of reciprocal allegiance which, although they seem to take the form of loyalty at times (Jounin, 2008), contribute in return to structuring and establishing the recruitment of a precarious and immigrant workforce in certain sectors of activity.

15 The situation of Soriba S. is a good illustration. Soriba S. was a twenty-nine-year-old Malian man, who arrived in France in 2014 and started working at the Pourl’hum agency in 2017. During a discussion, he told me:


Pourl’hum always sends me to Vercal et Fils. It’s only temporary work but I could have a permanent job at Vercal et Fils.

17 Rather than continuing with temporary work, Soriba S. wanted to be hired directly by Vercal et Fils. As studies have shown (Jounin, 2004 and 2008), recourse to temporary work can be understood as a managerial instrument for mobilising and disciplining a workforce, in this case undocumented workers, which allows them to adjust to the reality of the work, both on the part of the temporary work agencies and on the part of the client company. Soriba S. seemed to be part of a core group of temporary workers (just like Khemako S. at the Enjeu Progrès agency), which allows for flexibility in the management of temporary workers.

18 Moreover, beyond the fact that the aim of migration is above all to find work, the existence of a regularisation circular seems to reassure workers about their experiences of precariousness. In fact, in Paris, in its assessment of residence, the prefecture decides on the applications presented by the CGT on a case-by-case basis, making exceptionality and merit the rule:


“At a meeting in February 2016, the then Director of the General Police said of one worker: ‘What is his exceptional nature? [...] I want to regularise him, but we are waiting”, before adding, “It’s the passage of time that ends up regularising them’.” (Extract from the fieldwork journal, February 2016)

20 We can clearly see here the way in which precarious employment and living situations serve to justify the exceptionality of leave to remain. It should be noted that, on the one hand, undocumented migrants appropriate this principle of exceptionality, which leads to the regularisation of their administrative situation, integrating into their behaviour the logics of “merit” and “performance” (Bonjour and Chauvin, 2018; Zougbédé, 2018). This can be seen in Khemako S’s words. On the other hand, it is the test of endurance and patience, which should eventually lead to regularisation, that also seems to curb contestation. This is what we observe in Soriba S’s case. Indeed, in the context of the application of the Valls Circular and in view of its position as an intermediary on the issues of undocumented workers, the CGT negotiated certain agreements with large groups, [10] including the agency Pourl’hum. The agreement with Pourl’hum stipulates that the company shall facilitate regularisation procedures for its staff seeking residence permits in France through work, by transmitting the necessary employer documents (the employment offer on Cerfa form No. 15 186*03 and a certificate of correspondence in the case of work under an alias). The establishment of an undocumented workforce disguises the illegal practices it produces in the form of sociability at work, i.e. the capacity to evolve, to penetrate social networks and thus possess a certain amount of social capital that makes it possible to work, or even to regularise administrative situations in the long term. The prolonged experience of precariousness thus becomes the basis for limited leave to remain. At the same time, this experience becomes a motive for contestation.

The Undocumented Workers’ Labour Strike: Forms and Traces of Appropriation of Conflictual Routines

21 Observing the undocumented workers’ strikes supported and organised by the CGT throughout the 2010s, it is remarkable how often they recur. Indeed, since 2014, there have been no fewer than eight undocumented workers’ strikes, of varying magnitude. The permanence of these strikes, which are almost cyclical (there is a strike almost every year), appears to be characteristic of the appropriation of conflictual routines, that is to say, the establishment conflict as routine, which allows the move from tactical to strategic action.

Routine Precariousness as a Motive for Undocumented Workers’ Protest: A Tactical Orientation


We work. We are like slaves in fact. There are jobs where two people are needed, but you have to do it alone.

23 This remark by Danioro M., a twenty-six-year-old Malian man who arrived in France in 2013 and was on strike at the Pourl’hum agency in October 2019, sheds light on certain logics that are specific to the production of protest discourse among undocumented workers, which subsequently lead them to go on strike. Danioro M. had been working for the Pourl’hum agency since 2016 almost without interruption: at the time of the strike, he worked more than 1,480 hours at the Pourl’hum Agency. Like Soriba S., or Khemako S. at Enjeu Progrès, Danioro M. seemed to be part of Pourl’hum’s core group of temporary workers. However, as a temporary worker and, moreover, an undocumented worker, he could easily be dismissed, even though he appeared to meet the conditions for regularisation set out in the Valls Circular (five years’ presence in France and 910 hours worked in temporary employment, including 310 hours worked in the company that drew up the employment offer). In his remarks, referring to a slave system (“We are like slaves”), Danioro M. points to a work organisation that limits certain employees. [11] By denouncing his employment and working conditions, he thus sets up, in his discourse and through his work, forms of resistance and even emancipation. The reference is not anecdotal. On the one hand, it illustrates the forms of resistance of undocumented workers in the face of certain economic logics that make them a precarious and restricted salaried workforce. On the other hand, it shows the updating of professional dispositions [12] inherited from the strikes of 2008-2009, when more than a thousand undocumented workers came out of the shadows and put the recognition of their status as workers and therefore as full economic actors at the centre of their demands.

24 In their production of protest discourses from the work space, undocumented migrants also make use of the instrumentalisation of social logics that prevail in the organisation of work:


Because when you arrive at the building site, the person who works more than anyone else, he has no documents. So that’s how we knew. [...] Most of them are Fula. We can speak in Fula: ‘Do you have documents?’ [...] Some of them live in the same workers’ hostel [...]. Others live in the same place in Senegal. We knew. When a person speaks Fula, he has no documents. [...] Even the Soninke who are there. There are eight people who are Soninke.” (Khemako S.)

26 As studies have shown, employers prefer to recruit from the networks of relatives and friends of their own workforce (Waldinger, 1993), seeking as much to commit the reputation at work of the person through whom the recruitment is made as to favour the exploitation of workers whom they know are often undocumented. However, this recruitment by co-optation also facilitates the interconnection of these workers and the constitution of work collectives, albeit precarious and fragmented, as they work on different building sites and locations:


I called my older brother, we worked for the same temping agency. I told him: ‘Well, we have to decide because we don’t have any documents. Me, you, both of us have no documents. We are the providers for our families [...]’. He said to me: ‘Well, what are we going to do?’ I said: ‘Well, we have to organise the people who work together [...]’. And that’s it. He also called [...] he called the people he knew. And then I called. He also called. Until we really had a lot of people.” (Khemako S.)

28 To these two registers of protest — economic and social — a third can be added, which is illustrated in the interview extract cited above, in which Khemako S. supports his statement: “Most of them are Fula. We can speak in Fula. [...] Even the Soninke who are there. There are eight people who are Soninke”. Revealing the ethnic differences that can divide the undocumented workers (in the group of strikers, there are Fula and Soninke), but also forms of sociability gained at work, these remarks indicate the play with identity assignments made by the companies using this workforce when addressing their “black” workers. In their protest discourse, undocumented workers also showed the reappropriation of an economic and social identity (as workers and family providers), through which they contest a political order that makes undocumented workers an object class (Bourdieu, 1977) at work. The Valls Circular only endorses this state of affairs. Khemako S. asserts this in the rest of his statement:


Even when we organised [to go to the CGT], people told me: ‘Oh, you’re the first person to organise this, you’re never going to work [for Enjeu Progrès] again. It’s over for you’. I said to them: ‘Oh, really? Okay. If I never work there again, I’d rather have my documents’.

30 If it is the case that, as Castel (2011) argues, precariousness becomes a specific register of the organisation of work, the opposite proposition also seems to be true. The prolonged experience of precariousness at work, which makes undocumented workers vulnerable, does not suppress the production of protest discourses among them and contributes to the questioning of the organisation of work, particularly in terms of its economic and social functioning. This also means that because work is a space of identity recognition, even for undocumented workers and especially since the strikes of 2008-2009, and whatever the conditions, it is also, as a place of learning about relations of power and domination, a space that is a springboard for production of protest. In this space, discourses are tactics, that is: “calculated action determined by the absence of a specific. [...] The only site for tactics is that of the other. It must therefore work with the terrain imposed on it as organised by the law of a foreign force” (Certeau, 1990: 60), referring to the updating of professional dispositions inherited in part from previous strikes. They also aim to underline the acquisition, transmission and appropriation of dispositions formed in and through a trade union commitment, [13] which undocumented workers mobilise and which lead them to go on strike.

Challenging the Employer, Demanding the Right to Work and Mobilising the CGT

31 In their discourses, undocumented workers stage forms of protest, which are also shaped by the framework set out in the Valls Circular, its application and the work done with the CGT. As explained above, since the 2008-2009 strikes, the CGT has played the role of intermediary on issues relating to work and the regularisation of undocumented workers. Firstly, through union advice desks dedicated to putting together applications for regularisation, which give rise to monthly meetings with the Paris prefecture to decide on applications, marked as “CGT” applications. The union is thus strongly identified by undocumented workers as a kind of immigration front-desk that enables them to obtain documents:


[…] lots of brothers go to the CGT. They used to talk to us about the CGT here. When I came, after three months here in France I heard about the CGT.” (Khemako S.)

33 Secondly, the CGT is also identified as a conduit for mobilisation, in particular through Paula, who is in charge of undocumented workers’ issues at the Paris CGT, as Khemako S. also points out:


We went on strike because we’d been working for a long time with Enjeu Progrès. Since we didn’t have documents, we demanded our right. Our right to be like everyone else. [...] So I organised for us to go on strike. [...] I heard about a woman called Paula at the CGT in Paris. We get together a delegation and we go there.

35 Further analysis of the move to action shows that undocumented workers’ decision to strike is connected to technical use of the union’s resources and a trust in the union:


All the Senegalese, all the Malians who are here, they all really trust [Paula].” (Gagny A., thirty-three years old, cleaner since 2015 and ARK striker, October 2018)

37 The mobilisation of the union enables undocumented migrants to deploy trade union and political strategies. This is shown by the mobilisation of the CGT by the employees of ARK.

38 Based in the Rhône-Alpes region, ARK is a subcontractor in the cleaning sector, established in 2005. In Paris, the company is a subcontractor for three gym chains belonging to two large groups, employing fourteen people. The company appears to be a family business: the boss works with his wife, who was herself a former manager of one of the gyms. The operations manager knows the employees personally, exchanging with them by e-mail and telephone. This familiarity shown by ARK is related to the way in which this company organises work and manages its workforce, which it prefers to be undocumented, [14] organising its exploitation through the non-payment of leave, the signing of an undated letter of resignation prior to hiring, and the failure to count all hours worked, particularly those worked commuting from one site to another. In the summer of 2018, the takeover of one of the two groups owning the gyms was concluded. ARK’s management was worried and in a letter dated 25 July 2018 stressed the contract signed with the former group, which had awarded the contract for cleaning the gyms to ARK. Gadio D., a thirty-year-old Malian man, who arrived in France in 2014, who had been working for ARK since 2016 and was designated team leader, as well as other employees who were aware of the takeover, decided to approach the Parisian cleaning collective of the CGT. They were afraid of being made redundant following the takeover. With the help of a trade unionist, they wrote a letter to the management of ARK asking for employer documents to regularise their administrative situation. Their request met with no response. Gadio D., who was in regular contact with the ARK boss and the operations manager, decided to record the conversations he had with them.

39 The takeover of the gyms by another group was significant here, firstly because it showed the employees of ARK the precariousness of their employment situation. Although they were hired on permanent contracts, they did not really hold their positions, as they were undocumented and worked with false residence permits or under the name of others. Placed in a kind of “voluntary servitude” (Durand, 2004), a priori they did not have the means to protest: fulfilling the purpose of migration, undocumented migrants provide their labour under different conditions. However, they decided to emancipate themselves, first through tactics, translating their subjection and servitude into possibilities of resistance (Lallement, 2019). In this way, they asserted and claimed their right to work. Secondly, the takeover was indicative of the possibilities of protest, this time strategic, that work offers to undocumented migrants, because by mobilising the CGT, it was also labour law that was invoked, i.e. “the set of obligations, protections and rights that are contained in the contract (in private employment) or in the status (in public employment) and that regulate the employment relationship” (Avril et al., 2010: 183). Thus, in their mobilisation alongside the CGT, undocumented workers also assert work, and the social, economic and political space it encompasses, as the possession of a specific, i.e. the “site that can [...] be the base from which to manage relations with an exteriority of targets or threats (clients or competitors, enemies, the countryside around the city, the objectives and objects of research, etc.)” (Certeau, 1990: 59).

Putting Strikes to the Test, the Appropriation of Conflictual Routines

40 While the Valls Circular, rather than regulating the work of undocumented migrants, serves to manage a certain number of illegal practices that can be identified in their employment and justifies them in part, it also opens up areas of contestation in the legal sphere. Indeed, by establishing work as a ground for obtaining residence permits, it effectively incorporates undocumented migrants’ work into the law, and thereby the whole of “the employment relationship: that is to say, all the antagonisms that this relationship entails and the institutions that these antagonisms have produced, from employment law to the unions” (Barron et al., 2014: 725-726). At the same time, by setting out conditions to be fulfilled (see Table 2), this circular also recognises precariousness as a legitimate form of existence for undocumented migrants: between three and seven years of proven irregular presence and a certain number of hours worked while being declared. It was therefore by taking advantage of the existence of this circular and the fact that regularisation through work is a tool for regulating certain sectors of activity that the labour strike became a permanent means of struggle for undocumented migrants and the CGT. In their preparation and modalities of action, these strikes signal the appropriation of conflictual routines.

Assessing, Judging, Calculating Strengths and going on Labour Strike

41 The first way to judge the strengths for going on labour strike, both for the CGT and for undocumented workers, is to make sure of the narrative register of the strikes. Two registers can be highlighted from the analysis of the 2017-2019 strikes. The first register situates the action of the strikes in the denunciation of the unbridled exploitation of undocumented workers, particularly through the numerous breaches of the Labour Code to which they are subjected. This is the situation of Accord and ARK employees, as described in the leaflet written during the ARK employees’ strike.

Figure 1: ARK employees’ strike leaflet, October 2018

Figure 2

Figure 1: ARK employees’ strike leaflet, October 2018

It is time that precarious workers were recognised! Entire sectors of the French economy would not function without them!
To fight against social dumping and undeclared work, in the interests of all employees, the CGT calls for equal rights, regularisation of undocumented workers and respect for labour law for all.
Source: UD-CGT Paris, Paris, 15 October 2018.

42 By making working conditions visible through strike action, the State is held accountable. Since, in their labour strikes, undocumented migrants are not only opposing their management. Their protest also brings into play their relationship with the State, which has the power to regularise work through the regularisation of administrative situations. This is what the employees who went on strike were demanding by invoking labour law and mobilising the CGT.

43 The second register is based directly on the regulatory framework of the Valls Circular. The existence of a circular on regularisation through work means that it is possible for undocumented workers to be regularised. However, at Enjeu Progrès, the management refused to issue the employer documents necessary for the regularisation of these employees, even though the company had undocumented workers among its workforce. Prior to the strike at Enjeu Progrès, forty-five temporary workers declared themselves undocumented. As for the temporary employment agency Pourl’hum, although the CGT had negotiated an agreement to facilitate the regularisation process, at the end of 2018 and the beginning of 2019, the company breached this agreement, dismissing the demands of its temporary workers. [15] The agency no longer provided the employer documents necessary for regularisation through work (the employment offer in Cerfa form No. 15 186*03 and a certificate of correspondence in the case of work under an alias). In this narrative register of strikes, it was a matter of pointing out the contradictions between the existence of the circular and the blocking of regularisation through work by certain companies, all the more so as they employ many undocumented temporary workers who were sent to different work sites, sometimes on a continuous basis. This was the case of Soriba S., Khemako S. and Danioro M.

44 Assessing and judging strengths also means calculating them. During the various strike preparation meetings, CGT activists could be heard to say, “A strike movement is not declared just like that”, “A strike requires preparation”, “A strike concerns those who work. It’s not an occupation”. First, the reason that a strike is not declared without preparation is because it is important to know that it can be won. It is then a matter of:


Making sure that we end up with a favourable outcome for everyone, even though we can never be sure.” (Paula, forty-five years old, in charge of undocumented workers’ issues at the Paris CGT since 2011)

46 Because, by going on strike, undocumented workers risk losing their jobs:


You know it’s difficult: stopping work to go on strike, to stay for a while, you don’t know how long. And you provide for your family, [you have] children, a wife, a mother and everything in Africa. They are waiting for you. If you don’t send the money, nobody will send the money. It’s difficult to leave all this and come to participate.” (Khemako S.)

48 At the same time, they also expose themselves to the risk of expulsion. Faced with these risks, the CGT has to make sure that the workers really want to go on strike: “It is your decision to go on strike, right?”, said Paula during a meeting to prepare the October 2019 movement. The CGT also calculates the chances of success of the movement in advance. Although initially Khemako S., with the help of others including his brother, had gathered forty-five undocumented temporary workers from Enjeu Progrès, only thirty-three of them went on strike: “There were a lot of people, more than thirty-three people. But the others, they didn’t have the right, [it wasn’t the] same as for us.” What Khemako S. meant is that, given their administrative and employment situations, it was not possible for twelve of them to join the strike, without risking blocking any positive outcome of the movement. Their employment and residence situation was below what the CGT thought it could negotiate with the prefecture. As Paula reminded us, in the context of a social conflict, the prefecture is generally more flexible in applying the criteria of the Valls Circular, but it is nevertheless important to negotiate these criteria beforehand. This is one of the lessons learned from the 2008-2009 strikes:


In 2009, we had a hard time with people who had expired cerfas [employment offers] [...]. There were people who had not been in post for months or years. And so it was very complicated to obtain regularisation.” (Paula)

50 Secondly, preparation of the strike is necessary to ensure that undocumented workers have the right to strike, to “shore up the right to strike”, as Paula insists at each strike assembly. On the one hand, it is a matter of involving different structures and components of the CGT in the conflict, in order to show that it is really a labour conflict that involves the whole union (this was famously the case in the strikes of 2018 and 2019). On the other hand, it is a question of relying on the State’s labour institutions and administrations. Thus, almost invariably, each strike began with a check by the labour inspectorate, which established conclusively that there was an employment relationship and that, consequently, it was a labour strike and that the occupation of the workplace was in order. This is again a lesson learned from previous strikes, as a strategy to protect against a possible interim order and the intervention of the police. It also emphasises the fact that undocumented migrants have the support of the labour administrations in their strike. Here, the recordings of the conversations that Gadio D. made between himself, his boss and the operations manager should be recalled. These recordings were investigated by the labour inspectorate before the strike, when Gadio D. was interviewed.

51 Finally, given that the strike is not an occupation and concerns people who work, it is different from the more common demonstrations that periodically demand the regularisation of all undocumented workers. It also means affirming that these strikes are part of a labour conflict and that there is a regulatory and legislative framework to settle it, even if the conflict involves undocumented workers.

The Undocumented Migrants’ Labour Strike: A Framework for Social Dialogue

52 Labour strikes by undocumented workers illustrate the state of industrial relations on the issue of the work of undocumented migrants, because they highlight: “the interaction between employees and their trade union organisations, employers and their representatives, and ultimately the State” (Lallement, 2007: 433). This is also to argue that because these strikes come up against the social dialogue of industrial relations, they delineate an institutional landscape that testifies to the appropriation of conflictual routines, and which place the issue of undocumented workers in terms of economic, social and regulatory framework. Thus, although the strikes all seem to adopt the same quasi-routine organisation, the conflict is integrated into it as a game of strategies where the rules, known to all, are also made to be renegotiated, redefined.


A strategy had to be defined in the face of recalcitrant companies. And at the same time, pressure from the State, towards these companies. [...] The prefecture of the 95 department, for example, summoned all the companies concerned by FKR. That meant FKR, but also all the relevant temporary employment agencies, to ask them to draw up the necessary documents. So, there was pressure.” (Paula)

54 The extract is particularly evocative of this game which, ultimately, settles the issue of the improbable nature of undocumented workers’ strikes. Indeed, the reason these strikes have more to do with the appropriation of conflictual routines is that they say something about the relations with employers and the State, about the margins of manoeuvre of each party. From the CGT’s perspective, it was a matter of defining a strategy that would defeat the recalcitrant companies by obliging them to provide the employer documents. This strategy was largely defined by another which consisted of holding the State accountable: “For us, it’s also interesting politically, that the State, er how shall we put it? That the State pushes in the same direction, saying the companies must regularise the work situation”, added Paula, referring to the outcome of the February-March 2018 conflict. For the State, pushed by the strikes, it is a matter of accepting the pressure exerted, not so much to recognise defeat as to show that it is an actor in the social compromise. As for the companies, although they sometimes have no choice but to give in to the game of regularisation, the reaction of some employers to the labour strikes of undocumented migrants underlines this playing with the rules through which conflict becomes routine:


“The strike is over. Negotiations are being finalised, in particular by agreeing on the sums to be paid to the employees. The ARK boss spoke to one of his employees, Tidiane B., a forty-four-year-old Mauritanian man who arrived in France in 2015 and who had been working for the company since 2016. He told him: ‘Don’t spend it all! Don’t spend it all on women!’.” (Extract from fieldwork journal, ARK picket line, Wednesday 24 October 2018)


56 The permanent and recurrent nature of labour strikes by undocumented workers call into question “the idea that the massive use of different forms of precariousness would break any source of protest [Abdelnour et al., 2009]” (Béroud, 2014: 657). Firstly, it is a certain experience of precariousness that justifies the exceptionality of obtaining leave to remain. In the logic applied to the assessment of applications for regularisation of residence, the rule is not so much the appraisal of situations — the Valls Circular of 28 November 2012 only provides for exceptions —, as the degree of patience, of endurance in waiting, which ends up justifying regularisation for the Paris prefecture. Secondly, the analysis of the 2017-2019 undocumented workers’ strikes shows that this prolonged experience of precariousness is also a springboard for collective action for undocumented workers and the CGT.

57 While these strikes appear to be particularly improbable, it seems that reducing the analysis to this aspect alone misses something that would explain their recurrence and permanence. This is the hypothesis on which the article is based: more than improbable, the recent undocumented workers’ strikes are the result of the appropriation of conflictual routines, that is to say the consideration of conflict as routine, which makes it possible to move from tactical action to strategic action. By establishing the conflict as routine, these strikes delineate an institutional landscape that integrates the issue of undocumented workers into an economic, social and regulatory framework, putting it on the trade union and political agenda. Undocumented workers’ strikes act as spaces for regulating the employment and work of undocumented migrants, making up for the absence of genuine labour migration policies. As a member of the Parisian CGT cleaning collective stated at one of the preparatory meetings for the ARK workers’ strike in August 2018: “Most of our parents’ generation got their documents by going on strike”.

58 Analysis of undocumented workers’ strikes made it possible to focus on examination of the status of undocumented immigrant workers as an inextricable whole, jointly constructed by company policies and the migration framework. By highlighting the mobilising capacities of precarious workers, these strikes are also interesting because they allow us to take a fresh look at what a labour strike is and what it conveys as a repertoire for trade union action. Thus, the demand for the regularisation of administrative and work situations in the labour strike questions the extent to which it can be seen as a form of emancipation of migrant labour as analysed thus far. At the same time, through this conquest of new rights, which is reflected in the shaping of new employment relations, we can see the expression of an attempt at local regulation by the unions in productive areas where they traditionally had little presence, and which thus calls for a rethinking of the congruence between migration policies and employment policies.

I would like to thank Camille Schmoll and Serge Weber for their careful review and informed criticism of this article. I would also like to thank Nicolas Jounin for his suggestions for reformulation.


  • [1]
    The strikes that were organised and supported by the CGT included the following: the strike by hairdressers at 57 Boulevard Strasbourg in summer 2014, the strike by employees of a pizzeria in the 6th arrondissement of Paris in October 2015, the strike by employees of a temporary employment agency in the Yvelines department at the beginning of 2016, the strike by employees of a building site on Avenue Breteuil in the 7th arrondissement of Paris in autumn 2016, or the strike of employees of a subcontracting company of a large fast-food group in October 2017, as well as that of 160 temporary workers in February-March 2018, that of eight employees of a company subcontracted to clean gyms in October 2018 and that of 150 undocumented workers in October 2019. All these strikes were aimed at demanding the regularisation of employment and work situations through residence permits.
  • [2]
    See the special issue of the journal Politix published in 2009, La syndicalisation en France, and in particular the article by Piotet (2009). The author shows that far from being highly structured, the CGT is made up of loosely linked structures, which lead the organisation to function as an “organised anarchy”, and which give the organisation’s leaders little power over its orientations. This may therefore raise questions about the profiles and positions of CGT activists in the strikes of undocumented workers and the reasons they had for supporting these strikes, when others seemed to oppose them.
  • [3]
    i.e., “the calculation (or manipulation) of power relations which becomes possible from the moment a subject with power and willingness (a company, an army, a city, a scientific institution) can be isolated. It presupposes a site that can be circumscribed and can be the base from which to manage relations with exterior targets or threats (clients or competitors, enemies, the countryside around the city, the objectives and objects of research, etc.)” (Certeau, 1990: 59).
  • [4]
    By “illegal practice” I refer to the definition given by Fischer and Spire (2009: 8). Illegal practice should be considered “not as an accident, but as an indispensable part of social functioning. [...] The regulation of illegal practices is thus linked to the functioning of power, which, in order to perpetuate itself, must necessarily provide spaces where the law can be ignored or violated”. As the authors summarise, this “also implies seeing the management of illegality as a collective and relational phenomenon [...]” (Fischer and Spire, 2009: 7).
  • [5]
    “Reappears” because in 1973 there had already been the first labour strikes against the Marcellin and Fontanet Circulars of 1972, which restricted the possibilities of regularisation for foreign nationals and limited labour migration. Moreover, it is possible to place the undocumented workers’ strikes in a longer time frame that goes beyond the more contextual framework of this period, notably by situating them in the line of the struggles of immigrant workers of the 1960s-1970s, such as those of the Ouvriers Spécialisés (specialised workers) of the Renault factories in the early 1970s. From this perspective, the labour strike can also be viewed as reappearing as a means of struggle.
  • [6]
    The “group of Eleven” were among the supporters of this strike: CGT, CFDT, FSU, UNSA, Solidaires, Ligue des droits de l’Homme, Cimade, Autremonde, Femmes Égalité, RESF, Droits devant!!
  • [7]
    Indeed, Article 40 of this law provides for the possibility of obtaining limited leave to remain through work for people in an irregular situation settled in France.
  • [8]
    Indeed, although in relation to the issuing of temporary residence permits under the leave to reside framework, bearing the words “employee” or “temporary worker”, the Circular of 24 November 2009 had previously established work as a ground for obtaining residence permit, the text did not specify any assessment criteria. It extended Article 40 of the Law of 20 November 2007, known as the Hortefeux Law.
  • [9]
    The use of immigrant and undocumented labour appears to be structural to the functioning of some labour markets (Piore, 1978; Merckling, 1998) — or even exogenous (Moulier-Boutang, 1998) — and therefore ensures “delocalisation in situ” (Terray, in Balibar et al., 1999): undocumented migrants are particularly vulnerable and exploitable (Balibar et al., 1999; Morice and Potot, 2010). Thus, the recruitment and placement of this workforce reflects both a generalised precariousness in certain sectors of business under pressure and a singularity of employment and working conditions linked to the legal status of the individuals, which allows flexibility in their employment, with regard to a reality of production.
  • [10]
    Following the fallout of the 2008-2009 strikes, the CGT extended collective bargaining with the Paris prefecture on the application of the criteria of the circular and with certain large companies, notably temporary work agencies, and employers’ unions, such as Synhorcat. In a statement dated 10 December 2015, the director general of this union reiterated that he was “in favour of the regularisation of foreign workers who, although undocumented, are nonetheless properly declared and employed in the greatest transparency”.
  • [11]
    Since their access to residency is conditional on having a job.
  • [12]
    “[...] i.e. the ways of acting, thinking and perceiving that they have integrated in the course of their history and professional socialisation.” (Avril et al., 2010: 73).
  • [13]
    It should be noted that not all the professional dispositions of undocumented migrants to trade union action are related to the 2008-2009 strikes. As Jounin (2014) has shown, beyond the dispositions of all migrants involved in social and political struggles in their countries of origin, they relate to a differentiated politicisation of the migration issue in the countries of origin.
  • [14]
    This is what Gadio D., a thirty-year-old Malian striker at ARK told me in October 2018. During his job interview, the boss allegedly told him: “If you don’t have papers, it’s not a big deal. As long as you work, I’ll keep you.” The case of two ARK employees with regular status also bears witness to this. Having encountered difficulties with these two employees, the ARK boss wanted to get rid of them. Noting that these employees were in a regular situation, he was obliged to first suspend them, and then to find the grounds for their dismissal.
  • [15]
    This seems to have been one of the new positions taken by Prism’emploi, the organisation representing temporary work companies, in relation to the regularisation of temporary workers.

On the basis of ethnographic research into the case of four strikes between 2017 and 2019, this article examines the labour strikes of undocumented workers, supported and organised by the Confédération générale du travail (CGT). For a long time, these strikes appeared to be “improbable mobilisations”. This article aims to shed light on them by revealing the extent to which they stem from the appropriation of conflictual routines. The strikes delineate an institutional landscape that integrates the issue of undocumented workers into an economic, social and regulatory framework, by putting it on the trade union and political agenda. While removing certain obstacles to the collective protest for undocumented workers, the appropriation of conflictual routines allows the accumulation of activist resources, and the opening of spaces of negotiation. Thus, the recent labour strikes by undocumented migrants appear less improbable and more characteristic of strategic action, in the absence of genuine labour migration policies.

  • undocumented workers
  • strike
  • employment and work
  • trade union

Au début était la grève. Les grèves du travail des sans-papiers : l’appropriation de routines conflictuelles

À travers le cas de quatre grèves ethnographiées entre 2017 et 2019, cet article questionne les grèves du travail des sans-papiers soutenues et organisées par la CGT. Longtemps, ces grèves ont pu apparaître comme des « mobilisations improbables ». Il est ici proposé de les expliciter en montrant combien elles tiennent de l’appropriation de routines conflictuelles. Les grèves dessinent un paysage institutionnel qui intègre la question du travail des sans-papiers à un fonctionnement économique, social et réglementaire, en le mettant à l’agenda syndical et politique. Dans le même temps qu’elle permet la levée de certains obstacles à la protestation collective pour les sans-papiers, l’appropriation de routines conflictuelles autorise l’accumulation de ressources militantes et la conversion d’espaces de négociation. Les récentes grèves du travail des sans-papiers apparaissent donc moins improbables que davantage caractéristiques d’une action stratégique, en l’absence de réelles politiques migratoires de travail.

  • grève
  • emploi et travail
  • syndicat
  • travailleurs sans-papiers

Había una vez una huelga. Huelgas de los trabajadores indocumentados: la apropiación de rutinas conflictivas

A través del caso de cuatro huelgas entre 2017 y 2019, este artículo cuestiona las huelgas laborales de inmigrantes indocumentados apoyadas y organizadas por la CGT. Durante mucho tiempo, estas huelgas han aparecido como «movilizaciones improbables». Este artículo se propone explicitarlas mostrando hasta qué punto son el resultado de la apropiación de rutinas conflictivas. Las huelgas dibujan un paisaje institucional que integra la cuestión de los trabajadores indocumentados en un funcionamiento económico, social y normativo, al introducirla en la agenda sindical y política. Al mismo tiempo que permite eliminar ciertos obstáculos a la protesta colectiva de los inmigrantes indocumentados, la apropiación de las rutinas conflictivas permite la acumulación de recursos militantes y la conversión de los espacios de negociación. Las recientes huelgas laborales de los inmigrantes indocumentados parecen menos improbables que más propias de una acción estratégica, en ausencia de verdaderas políticas de inmigración laboral.

  • huelga
  • empleo and trabajo
  • unión
  • trabajador sin papeles
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Emeline Zougbédé
Postdoctoral researcher, ‘MINA 93’ Project, Fellow of Institut Convergences Migrations, Laboratoire Triangle, UMR5206 - Ens-Lyon, 15 parvis René Descartes, 69342 Lyon;
Translated by
Alexandra Poméon O’Neill
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