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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Les « Champs-papiers », entre espoir et découragement

by Marie Barbier

Striking Undocumented Workers Torn Between Hope and Discouragement

Translated Tuesday 8 July 2008, by Gene Zbikowski

Undocumented workers. Six weeks after they began their strike, the striking restaurant workers in Paris’ eighth arondissement are waiting desperately to be legalized.

The journalists left a long time ago. Passers-by no longer stop. Even the tourists are no longer surprised by the red CGT trade union flags covering the façades of the Quick and the Bistro Romain restaurants at the end of the Champs-Elysées. And yet, indoors, the struggle continues. One way or another. After six months on strike, boredom and fatigue are sapping morale. At the Quick fast-food restaurant, the daily routine of the eight striking janitors has not changed in the past 43 days: they lie down after the restaurant closes at 2 a.m. and they get up when it opens at 7 a.m.

Eager to state their case.

In order to hold out, they take turns going home to rest and wash. The showers that they used in the days when they cleaned the restaurant are now off-limits to them. Worn out, they remain sitting on the red plastic benches, ignored by the restaurant workers and the replacement janitors. The cleaning company, Egen France, a subcontractor of the Quick company, quickly replaced the strikers. To add to their distress, in the last few days, people have been putting less money in the strike solidarity box. Some 20 euros, as against the hundred euros in the first few weeks of the strike.

And yet, fatigue and boredom do not seem to have dented their determination to fight to the end, towards one goal: legalization for everybody. To convince yourself of that, all you have to do is listen to them describe their working conditions. Kalilou Fissounou, a 26-year-old Malian, who has lived in France for the past six years, says: “Sometimes I worked from 11 p.m. to 9 a.m., to make 60 to 70 euros. And he translates the words of the worker next to him, who cannot speak French but is eager to state his case: He worked every day of the week for months and has not had a paid vacation in five years. Their requests for legalization were filed a month ago. Since then, the strikers have been waiting, endlessly, tirelessly. Up to now, only one has obtained a preliminary legalization document. The news is no better at the neighboring restaurant. The 62 strikers at the Bistro Romain have only obtained two such documents in three months...

The ambience is different at another struck restaurant. At Marius et Janette’s, in the avenue Georges-V, the 17 strikers’ morale is as resistant as steel. Dish-washers, cooks, and maîtres d’hôtel, they all went on strike on May 24, when their boss threatened to fire them for serious breach of contract – he had just “discovered” that they were undocumented workers...

In the back-room where they live, some are watching television while others play cards. Copies of their strike newspaper, which comes out twice a week, cover the walls. Olivier Piot, a member of the “collective for the dignity of undocumented workers,” has been backing them from the start. “From the very first day, they organized a strike committee. Every striker belongs to a squad (cleaning, the strike newspaper, shopping...), which has made it possible for them to avoid the trap of not having anything to do. Each has a responsibility, and that keeps morale up.”

“National identity papers are priceless.”

Up to now, they have obtained six legalizations. Olivier Piot denounces that : “The government’s strategy is to legalize them grudgingly, one after another, so that the strike movement will be worn down. They’re reacting as if it were an ordinary strike movement. But they haven’t realized that time doesn’t count for these workers. Identity papers become priceless when you’re faced with day-to-day survival.”


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