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Common cause in labour

In France, Italy and elsewhere, migrants are organising, not just against racism but for their rights as workers. Vittorio Longhi reports
December 2012

Montage: Louise Thomas

There is no doubt that over recent decades we have witnessed a undeclared ‘war’ against undocumented migrants, as Matthew Carr suggests. And this does not relate only to the migration flow between northern Africa or the Middle East and Europe, but to all the main migration routes: from south east Asia to Australia and to the oil-rich countries of the Persian Gulf; from Central America to the United States; from sub-Saharan Africa to South Africa.

This war does not stop at the borders. It reaches to the heart of social life, permeating economic relations and the political and cultural sphere of the countries of destination. In general, these migrants face the hardest working conditions, legal and illegal forms of exploitation and discrimination, along with xenophobic propaganda and racism.

The assault on labour

Most migrants are first and foremost workers. There are about 105 million regular economic migrants globally, some 3 per cent of the global workforce. UN estimates suggest that the undocumented comprise a further 10 per cent.

When we deal with migration policies, therefore, we should take into account their economic meaning and the strong link with labour policies. Noam Chomsky has argued that the past 40 years has seen ‘an international assault on labour’, a constant process of de‑unionisation, flexibilisation and deregulation of rights at work. The result is a new ‘precarious proletariat’, which includes those traditionally on the margins of the labour market, such as migrants, and does not spare young locals. There is a whole generation living in frustration and uncertainty because of widespread use of casual work, general insecurity and rampant unemployment in the absence of former protection.

To put it in theoretical terms, the situation is functional to the creation of a new, global ‘reserve army of labour’, which helps drive down overall working conditions. We could also say that the aim is to consolidate ‘biopower’, the material control and subjugation of impoverished populations.

We are encouraged to think that migrants and casual young workers are two separate aspects of the labour market, even opposed in some cases. Racism and xenophobia are on the increase, especially in the countries that have been hardest hit by the current economic crisis, and migrants are targeted as potential enemies, including by openly fascist vigilantes.

However, these anti-immigrant vigilantes are not the principal threat, as the philosopher Slavoj Žižek points out.:‘They are merely collateral damage accompanying the true threat – the politics of austerity that has brought the country to such a predicament.’

Reassembling resistance

Migrants and local unemployed or precarious workers are united by the same structural conditions of insecurity and vulnerability and should share the same struggles. The protests that took place in 2011, from the Arab Spring to the indignados and Occupy movements, highlighted the widespread dissatisfaction with the current economic and political system.

For the same reasons, a new consciousness is spreading among migrant workers. Albeit in a spontaneous and uncoordinated way, the potential for migrants to participate in and contest political structures is growing. In various countries they respond to attacks by rebelling against humiliation and segregation, and taking part in demonstrations, protests and strikes. They are using new tools for communication – blogs and online social networks – and, with the support of anti-racist movements, trade unions and NGOs, in many cases they are succeeding in revitalising social and labour protests and winning important battles. Two recent examples in Europe show what can be achieved.

Movement of the sans-papiers

In France, there has been a significant shift in the struggle of the sans-papiers movement recently. These migrants, mainly northern and sub-Saharan Africans, have been at the centre of the productive system but outside the political and social system for decades, as though they lived beside the society to which they contributed.

The majority of first-generation migrants, who arrived in France in the post-colonial period, seemed destined to remain in a position of eternal subordination as immigrants, without any possibility of integrating or improving their status. And for years the issue of the sans‑papiers – those who existed without official documentation or sanction, literally ‘without papers’ – was considered predominantly from a humanitarian point of view. Attention was focused on their right to remain and live in France, not on working conditions.

But over recent years a major campaign has been gathering pace to regularise the status of the many thousands of migrants, who actively contribute to a large part of the national economy but who live in the shadows under conditions of constant insecurity and blackmail. In this, the historic French trade union of the left, the CGT, has been playing an increasing role.

The first exemplary dispute, in which the union sided with workers without documents, dates back to 2006, when 22 sub‑Saharan workers went on strike and occupied the Modeluxe industrial laundries of Chilly-Mazarin. After a week’s strike joined by all workers, the position of the 22 was regularised.

Since then a series of protests and strikes has led to the regularisation of tens of thousands of workers, from construction sites to the most exclusive restaurants of Paris. Beyond the documents, however, the value of these actions lies in the fact that they were started by the immigrants themselves, demonstrating an increasing awareness and militancy among the sans-papiers.

A day without us

‘What would happen if the four-and-a-half million immigrants living in Italy decided to down tools for a day? And if the millions of Italians who are tired of racism supported their action?’

This is the question that launched the First of March, A Day Without Us movement in Italy in 2010. It started two months after the French movement of the same name, and was inspired by the US movement from 2006.

The idea came after a series of episodes of open discrimination and xenophobic violence against immigrants, like the one that occurred in Rosarno, in the far south of Italy. A group of young African farmworkers rioted after three of them were attacked by a criminal gang that runs orange picking in the area. The attack was intended to intimidate and avoid paying them. After the riot people from Rosarno formed patrols and seriously injured several Africans, pursuing them to their homes, which they then set on fire. Media reports highlighted the squalid conditions these young men were forced to live in, and brought new accusations of barbarity and racism raining down on Italy.

The idea of an ‘immigrants’ strike’ gained support from national media and developed very quickly through online social networks. A group of journalists and trade unionists, all women, decided to open a page on Facebook and a blog with migrant friends and Italians with direct experience of immigration. The blog included a guide to setting up local committees bringing migrants and Italians together. The initiative went ahead with the support of numerous human rights organisations, magazines, newspapers and opposition parties.

The main trade union confederations refused to support the protest, claiming that the migrants’ strike would have divided workers on an ethnic basis, instead of uniting them. Some trade unionists, however, endorsed the protest and admitted that there was a problem with migrants being represented within labour organisations.

Reclaiming rights

On 1 March 2010, about 300,000 people took part in demonstrations across Italy, with marches filling many squares, from Milan to Rome, and Naples to Palermo. In areas where there was a high concentration of migrant workers and links to unions, some metalworking, textile, food and chemical factories were closed by the strike. Overall, the result was remarkable considering the speed with which the demonstration had been organised, the complete lack of structure and in general the lack of a strong link with the trade unions.

Since then the movement has focused on some specific objectives. These include securing an undertaking to ‘recognise the right to full citizenship of those born, growing up, living and working on the Italian territory’ – an extension from the principle of jus sanguinis, based on the country of birth, to that of jus soli, based on the blood link. Other objectives include the right for immigrants to vote at local elections, equal opportunity legislation and the rejection of special laws for the undocumented.

Above all, the First of March, A Day Without Us movement helped to create a new awareness among migrants about their social and economic role. It showed that migrants can mobilise and reclaim their rights; they can demand representation and push for participation. In doing so, they are advancing the cause of all workers.

Vittorio Longhi’s ‘The immigrant war: A global movement against discrimination and exploitation’ has just been published by Policy Press. See also facebook.com/TheImmigrantWar


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