Eastern European migrants in France: the Polish example

The mythical Polish plumber

Oiseau-tempête examine Eastern European migration to France, with particular attention to workers from Poland, analyse its effects on French society and debunk commonly held myths.

Few Eastern European workers migrate to France
Eastern European migration flows to France are recent and have been quite small in comparison with other migration flows : they only started around 2000, except for Polish workers (employed as seasonal workers) who already started coming in 1990 and Romanian workers (as asylum seekers) after 1994. In 1999, Eastern European migrants represented only 2.2 percent of the 3.3 millions foreigners in France compared to 1.7 percent of 3.6 million foreigners in 1990 (the total proportion of foreigners in France has been stable for many decades : 6 percent of the total population). So there is a small but modest progression, especially if you compare it to what happened in most of Western European countries: Germany saw Eastern European migration peak at the beginning of the 1990’s; Portugal has received a strong Ukrainian migration from the end of the 1990s (around 400,000 Eastern European migrants live presently in this country); Italy has seen an important inflow of workers coming from Rumania, Ukraine and Albania [1]. In Spain, the government estimates that there are around 500,000 legal and illegal Rumanians.

Polish people constituted the most numerous contingent among Eastern European migrants in France in 2000 [2], but in contrast to those coming from the ex-USSR, their number is diminishing (from 47,000 in 1990 to 33,500 in 1999). They represent 40 percent of all those who have a residence permit, but it concerns a small number of persons : around 30,000. In 1999, only 2.7 percent of Polish people having recently migrated settled in France as compared to 327,000 in Germany.

Eastern European migrants
(with residence permit) in 2001 in France

Russians 11,537

Ukrainians 3,118

Central and Eastern Europe : 48,281

Including Poles 28,009 i.e. 41,1 percent

Rumanians 10,530

Bulgarians 4,098

Polish workers in Europe : mainly in Germany and in Great Britain
65,000 Poles came to work in a country of the European Union since it was enlarged to its ten new members, a year ago. But if one counts ‘seasonal jobs’ in the European Union, 450,000 Poles have been employed during these first 12 months. Most went to work in Germany (28 percent), Great-Britain (21 percent), Italy (11 percent), Ireland (7percent) and Netherlands (7percent). In 2005, according to the Polish Ministry of Labour, 500,000 seasonal Polish workers will go abroad to work, mainly in Great-Britain (as farm workers, dentists, medical staff and even… plumbers) and in Germany. This number is not very different from last year (2004) when 300,000 Poles found a seasonal job in Germany and 100,000 a seasonal job in Britain. Wrongly fearing a massive arrival of cheap labour, most of the ‘older’ 15 members of the EU, except Britain and Ireland, have instated a transitional period of at least 2 years, before opening their labour market to the citizens of the new member countries. Some states (Germany, Spain, Italy and Netherlands) have been more pragmatic and have created, for seasonal jobs, quotas which apply to the new members.

Eastern European migrants in France: in which sectors are they working?
Contrary to other migrants, most Eastern European workers are educated and qualified. Central and Eastern European migrants rarely get with a permanent residence permit (valid for over a year), partly because French immigration policy has become harsher [3]. They are Poles, Romanians (qualified blue and white collar workers) and Russians (executives, engineers).

A more important number of Eastern European workers come with a temporary status (residence permit for more than a year and provisional authorization to work) : the number of those receiving temporary permits has increased tenfold from 1990 to 1999, they are workers, asylum seekers and students. Among those who come and work, one mainly finds Russians, Poles and Romanians in manufacturing industries, building industry (including shipyards) and collective social services (for example hospitals). Since Poland entered the European Union the 1st of May 2004, hundreds of nurses, disappointed by their working conditions, have left Polish hospitals to go and work in other countries of the European Union.

Seasonal work, illegal work and ‘secondment’ of Eastern European workers: building industry, public buildings and works sector, and agriculture
As well as the official entries into France, the number of illegal workers has also grown. Some networks (mainly Romanians and Ukrainians) control street hawking and prostitution (37percent of the prostitutes working in France come from Eastern Europe). But most illegal workers are exploited by the building industry, more often in private houses than on big building sites. They can be hired illegally by small business whose owners are sometimes themselves Eastern Europeans, who arrived a few years ago and offer their ‘services’ for prices which are 10 to 30 percent cheaper than those of French craftsmen.

The most numerous migrants are the seasonal workers, whose official number has literally exploded. Among the Eastern European workers, the majority are Poles. They have been among the first to arrive in France after 1990 and, every year, thousands of Poles come, usually just for a seasonal job in the agricultural sector, to evade poverty and unemployment which have particularly devastating effects on Polish rural population. France has signed a specific bilateral agreement about seasonal workers with 3 countries: Poland, Tunisia and Morocco. In 1999, the Poles represented 34percent of the seasonal workers who did not have an EU passport and in 2001, 43 percent. But many of them are not declared by their bosses. They work in the farming sector (fruit, vegetable and grape pickers [4]), in the building sector and in restaurants.

An illegal practice is spreading very quickly and affects many Polish workers (and not only them): the ‘secondment of employees’ offered to French companies by Polish companies which pretend to provide ‘services’ while in fact they are selling (cheap) labour. This practice is growing in the building sector, agriculture (market-gardening, wine-growing), or in nuclear power stations, and in factories for specific works, but to a lesser extent.

These workers are disguised employees, false self-employed workers: they are not declared in France (but in Poland) and their employers are not subjected to paying social security contributions to the French State. The legal procedures are complex and, in fact, the famous Bolkestein directive has already been enforced for a few years. Only 20 to 25percent of the companies which ‘second’ their employees on French territory declare their staff to the French Ministry of Labour. Most of the time, the Inspection du Travail (Factory Inspectorate, a State administration which is supposed to control factories and companies) controls only the working conditions and not the hiring conditions.

Agricultural work: fruit, vegetable and grape picking
In many market-gardening areas (Bouches-du-Rhône, Brittany, Alsace, South-West), more and more Polish workers (adding to the Moroccans and the Tunisians) are employed by the farmers for wages which are largely lower than those authorized by French legislation, often 5 to 7 euros per hour compared to 12 to 13 euros per hour normally. In these sectors, labour accounts for 60 to 80percent of the production cost.

French bosses claim to be obliged to give low wages to farm workers because of the strong competition of German producers: from 1991, Germany has introduced the statute of ‘ seasonal worker ‘ in the agricultural, forest and hotel sectors, a statute much appreciated by employers : the hourly wage is sometimes lower than 5 euros, the contract is limited to 3 months, there is no minimum or maximum duration of work per week and, if the contract lasts less than two months, the employer does not pay any social security contributions for his workers and can legally hire them for around 5 euros per hour. 90percent of the migrants hired by German farmers come from Eastern European countries.

In July 2005, 240 seasonal workers, Moroccans and Tunisians, went on strike in two farms of Saint-Martin-en-Crau which belong to the Sedac and Poscros companies, large producers of peaches and apricots. The workers wanted their 2004 and 2005 overtime working hours to be paid, which amounted to about 1500 to 3000 euros per head. They usually work 230 hours per month, but are paid only for 150 hours. They also protested against their living and working conditions: they had to buy their own working clothes and shears, they slept in ruined dwellings without water. In theory, they were supposed to receive the minimum wage (called in French the SMIC) and to have an OMI (Office des migrations internationales, a French State organization different from the IOM and mainly related to French former colonies) contract. With this contract, employers can only recruit foreign seasonal workers for a limited amount of time (8 months maximum) and their employees receive around 800 euros per month.

The strikers of Saint-Martin-en-Crau won : their employers promised to put them in workers hostels, to pay their transport expenses as well their past unpaid overtime hours, and to rehire them next year. So they came back to work. But the next day a new strike begun in another farm, mobilizing 120 workers, both seasonal (Moroccan, Tunisian and Polish), but also permanent workers, with the same requests. In this conflict, divisions appeared between seasonal workers according to their nationality: the 30 Polish seasonal workers did not follow the movement because they had received pressure from the management and threats of being sacked. Not speaking French as Moroccan workers do, they also form part of a very recent immigration, and are therefore less armed to defend themselves. Being newcomers, they probably think that abstaining from striking will enhance their chances of being hired next year. As usual, the State and the Farmers trade union tried to convince the public that these scandalous practices concerned only a minority of bosses who don’t respect the Labour Code, whereas, in reality, these practices have existed for many years and develop because of the increasing competition.

Workers trade unions are traditionally weak in the agricultural sector, including among permanent farm workers. Whereas the CFDT trade union published and distributed booklets (on the beaches!) about student seasonal workers rights, the only visible organization in this conflict has been the CGT trade union, through its local and departmental organizations. During the conflict won by the strikers on the two farms of Saint-Martin-en-Crau, the CGT played an important role : several of its delegates were received to discuss with the ‘ préfet ‘ (representing the State in each French department) accompanied only by only one of the 240 strikers!

Strike on Saint-Nazaire Shipyards (Chantiers navals de Saint-Nazaire)
Polish companies provide Polish workers to French subcontractors who themselves work for large corporations. Their goal is to reduce by 30percent the manufacturing cost of the ships.

In July 2005, around 20 Polish electricians of Kliper, a Polish company which deals with the assembly of electric cables, working on the construction of two steamers, went on strike because they had not been paid for two months (since June). Their foremen had disappeared with one of the company’s minibuses, also taking their contracts with them. Kliper, the Polish company, works for a subcontractor (Gestal) of the Atlantic Shipyards of Saint-Nazaire (Alsthom Marine).

On Saint-Nazaire shipyards, these scandalous practices are well known since the strikes of the Rumanians, Greeks and Indians (paid the minimum wage, the SMIC) who worked in 2003 on the Queen Mary 2. Their employer, Avco Marine, refused to pay 92 Rumanian workers. First they went on strike alone, and then they were joined a few days later, with the help of the CGT trade union, by French, Indian, Polish workers of the Atlantic Shipyards and of sub-contracting companies. They received 3,200 euros which were paid immediately. But, to this day, they only got 50percent of their wages. Legal actions have been launched but Saint-Nazaire’s public prosecutor office decided to close the case.

Wages, which are apparently in conformity with French standards, in fact hide low-cost practices: sub-contracting companies oblige their workers to pay for their housing, their meals and the shuttle buses which takes them to work everyday. These companies use a trick which is invisible on pay slips: a rate which represents half of the minimum wage (the SMIC) in the event of a ‘period of availability’. This vague concept makes it possible to reduce by 50 percent the wages when the employer claims the work process is hampered by another company doing work on the steamer. This boss can then force the Polish workers to wait, without being paid, in the unfinished gangways of the liner. The working conditions are very bad and they slave away more than 50 hours per week. The Poles buy their food in cheap supermarkets, eat generally from cans and never in the Atlantic Shipyards staff restaurants. They are paid in Poland, in zlotys, according to the rate of exchange most favourable to the employer. The industrial accidents on these shipyards are frequent, the injured workers have often no insurance (the agreements between French and Polish Social Security are not yet operational).

Most of the Polish strikers from Kliper had arrived two months ago from the Gdansk and Szczecin shipyards. They had not received their wages (1,200 euros per month compared to 500 euros for the same job in Poland) since their arrival in France, just a hundred euros to buy some food. When they were informed that they would not be paid at all for the moment, the workers decided to begin a hunger strike in front of Saint-Nazaire’s City Hall. They declared that they will not move from there until their case is settled in France… since the Polish company Kliper proposed to send two buses to repatriate them in Poland! This method is used with each conflict: a first group of workers arrived in Saint-Nazaire in Spring and was entirely renewed in May, because their wages had not been paid. Finally, this first group was partially paid and sent back to Poland.

The CGT trade union is mobilized on this case (and has started a legal procedure against the non-payment of the wages) and all the representatives of the local authorities including the Polish consul hypocritically have regretted that the Labour Code is not yet precise enough on these questions to enable them to intervene…and each one tried to put the blame on the other.

But on the 3rd August 2005 the Polish hunger strikers stopped their action because they won. The hunger strike in front of Saint-Nazaire’s city hall was no good publicity for the mayor and “his” town, some of the strikers had even stopped drinking water and the local population was moved and showed some solidarity. The media took interest in this case, so the French and Polish governments were obliged to react promptly in front of a quite unexpected determination, unexpected indeed by everyone : the strikers, the CGT trade union and the authorities. So the workers got their money (for the first time in this kind of conflict) but they were sacked and sent back to Poland where they will be on the dole because their contract ceased. During this strike, the CGT trade union was able to show that it did not have anything against Eastern European workers coming to France and argued to that a “Social Europe” should implement reforms favorable to workers.

Concerning Eastern European workers in France, one can note two tendencies:

- a limited inflow, contrary to the situation in other European countries: thus the theme of the ‘ invasion ‘ of French labour market by cheap Eastern European labour is a myth, which particularly flowered during the referendum campaign for the European constitution, in parallel with the propaganda about the relocations to Eastern Europe;

- the Eastern European workers who arrive in France, mainly Polish, are more and more often illegally employed. Either they are not declared by their bosses, or they are submitted to all sorts of dubious ‘legal’ contracts which can easily be violated by their employers.

Some sectors (building industry, agriculture) have always employed illegal foreign workers and succeeded in exploiting migrants who were obliged to leave their country to find a job.

Three more recent factors also play a role today: the lack of local labour in agriculture, the increasing competition between European countries which try to find new ways of degrading working conditions, and the fact that farm workers can’t find any more jobs in their native countries, which is the case for the Polish workers.

Borbala (Oiseau-tempête)

[1] The 2003 regularization of clandestine workers shows the importance of Eastern European migrations : of 635,000 people who have been regularized, 133,000 are Romanian, 100,000 Ukrainian and 47,000 Albanese.

[2] After the war, there were 425,000 Poles (25 percent of the foreigners in France) compared to 47,000 (1.3 percent) in 1990 and 33,500 in 1999.

[3] More and more illegal workers are expelled. From 2003, 1672 Romanians have been expelled including 134 by ‘special grouped flights’ and 1528 on commercial flights. In 2002, 1157 Romanians were expelled. But the number of Eastern European students is growing.

[4] Over 2228 seasonal workers legally picking grapes in 2003, 2225 were Polish. France has several trade unions whose members, in all, don’t represent more than 7 percent of the “wage-earners”. The CFDT is a former Christian trade union, which after 1968 attracted quite a lot of white-collar Far Left militants and used them to build a Leftist reputation in the 1970s before expelling them later, expulsions which gave birth to new trade unions (called SUD, in the Post Office, Health sector, Education, Railways, etc., mainly in the public sector). The CGT, traditionally more influential among blue-collar workers than the CFDT, is a trade union which has been controlled by the Communist Party for decades, but as the French CP is now fragmented between several fractions, it is a bit more “open” (i.e. a bit less Stalinist) and even reintegrates in its ranks revolutionary militants who were expelled in the 1970s and 1980s, and give them significant local responsibilities. Before the beginning of the last European referendum campaign, the official leadership of the CGT supported the “yes” vote while a good part of the apparatus, supported by Far Left militants, defended the “no” vote. A microscopic incident which revived once more the Far Left illusion to push the trade unions to the Left and/or to control them.

Oiseau-tempête is a journal of social critique which exists in Paris since 1997 in Paris. It is produced by a collective of a dozen people from different political origins, who are partly inspired by anarchist, Marxist, situationist or surrealist ideas. Most of them don’t identify totally with any of these currents. To make a long story short, our project can be defined with 3 words: communist, libertarian and internationalist. All humanity’s wealth and tasks should be put in common : we refuse any instituted power, any useless mediation. We think that common freedom is the necessary precondition to the blooming of each one’s liberty. Outside the journal, the collective also publishes leaflets and papers according to the events. The last issue (n°12, summer 2005, 80 pages) appeared in June 2005.



Oiseau-tempête, 21, ter rue Voltaire,

75011 Paris France

[prol-position news #4, 12/2005] www.prol-position.net. Edited by libcom for accuracy.