CHRIS KUTSCHERA 40 YEARS of JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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FRANCE: Arab Workers in French Factories

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40 years

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Akka GOn the production lines  and in the press-shops and paint-shops of the big car factories around Paris, 95 per cent of the workforce are immigrants -- mostly from North Africa. When asked why this should be so, the immigrant workers’ leaders are, for once, in agreement. “Today’s Frenchman is spoilt”, says Yassir,an official of the CSL union. “He gets everything on a plate -- social security, paid leave, a library, a discothèque. He can count on education helping him up the social ladder. He won’t accept exploitation. He refuses to work on the production line”.

For Dali Abdel-Razzak, one of the activists who broke away from the communist-led union, the CGT, “The immigrants do the worst-paid and most unpleasant work, in the press-shops and on the production lines”. Born in Ghazaouet (Algeria) in 1953, Abdel-Razzak came to France in 1973. He brought his guitar and at first played music in Arab coffee-shops. “I liked it”, he says. “I made friends and decided to stay”. In 1976 he got married and started to work in a car factory.

car factoryIn excellent French, he vividly describes the harsh and repititive work to which immigrants have become accustomed. “In the press-shop you take a piece of metal which can weigh up to 13 pounds. You put it down, you press it, you take it away - sometimes 500 or 550 times an hour. If you take off your gloves to blow your nose, you can’t catch up. You are allowed to go to the men’s room for seven minutes every four hours. At lunchtime you have 36 minutes. If you take five minutes to wash your hands, between seven and 10 minutes waiting in the queue, you are left with 15-20 minutes for lunch”.

For doing the most unpleasant work, the immigrant is also the worst paid. “One of my frriends who was hired 20 years ago makes 4.700 francs ($530) a month”, says Abdel-Razzak. “in fact, one often makes less that that. Right now, due to technical stoppages, I earn exactly 3.000 francs ($340) a month”.

Why did the immigrant workers for so long accept such conditions? Their traditional passivity was one of the reasons why French comapnies began hiring them in the 1960s. After strikes in the coal mines of northern France in 1963, the management started to recruit Moroccan workers, who were considered submissive. At the same time, the Simca car factory in Poissy (near Paris) hired workers from the Casablanca area.

Akka G“They soon had problems with these workers”, says Abdallah Frayggi, a CGT delegate at Poissy, “and so later they hired Moroccan from rural areas, being careful to select illiterate workers”.The recruiting agents from the Citroen car factories hired workers mostly from the Souss, in southern Morocco, where the Berber population respects the traditional values of family, religion and monarchy.

The French National Immigration Office also hired workers from the Souss, the Rif ands the Figuig area. Transplanted to a factory in the suburbs of Paris, the Moroccan worker -- who had often paid the recruiting agent to get hired -- started work on a production line under the watchful eye of a foreman who told him he was on probation. “Naturally, he worked hard”, says Dali Abdel-Razzak. “And since very often, at the beginning, his papers were not in order, he was quite easy to control. He accepted everything without daring to protest”.

The immigrant workers quickly discovered there were many reasons for joining “the CSL system” -- to buy what Akka Ghazi, a leading CGT official, calls “the peace-and-quiet card”. The CSL -- the Confédération des Syndicats Libres (Confederation of Free Trade Unions) -- claims to be an “independent” trade union. “We try to take into account the economic needs of the company”, says Max Leberre, CSL secretary-general at the Talbot plant in Poissy, “while protecting the interests of the workers”; In fact the CSL is a management-inspired “union” which exists to discipline the workforce by a mixture of threats and promises.

“I had a residence card valid for only one year”, recalls Abdallah Moubine, a Moroccan worker born 30 years ago near Agadir. “At the end of the year, I needed a company certificate to renew it. When I asked my workshop boss for it, he told me, “You get your CSL card -- if not, you can go”.  When I told him it was blackmail, he just said, “that’s your problem”. So I joined the CSL. I got my certificate, and I was even promoted”. Today Moubine is a CGT delegate at a Citroen factory near Paris.

As far as housing was concerned, a worker who joined  the CSL got a flat in one or two months, while a CGT member could wait a lifetime. Ait Salah, a CGT delegate at the Citroen factory in Aulnay, north of Paris, waited eight years before he got his flat. “I applied for it in 1975”, he says, “and I got a flat -- a very dirty one, incidentally -- only in 1983. And that was thanks to our successful strike in 1982”.

Inside the factory, CSL members were made workshop technicians, and their salary was doubled -- “though they could not even adjust a machine”, says Abdallal Frayggi. And for most of the time these”technicians” did not have to work -- they only had to keep an eye on their colleagues.

Virulently anti-communist, CSL officials continually urged workers not to join a trade union -- especially the CGT. “No politics here; we want to work. There is only one union here -- against the strike. Don’t speak to people who want to draw you into politics, especially those CGT men”, CSL representatives would repeat time and again.

For those who stepped out of line,the punishment was harsh. Abdallah Frayggi is a veteran among Moroccan trade-union activists. He has worked in Poissy since 1967. In 1972 he joined the CGT. At that time, he says, if an immigrant worker was seen talking to a CGT activist he would be dismissed.

“So for two years I remained underground”, Frayggi recalls. “In 1974 they decided to sack 600 or 700 workers, so I took the decision to declare myself as a delegate, so as not to be dismissed (trade union delegates are protected by French mlaw). At that time I was working on a production line, three or four feet away from my nearest colleague. When I went public I was isolated, alone in a room. The workers were forced not to speak to me, not even to say hello. At the canteen no one sat near me”.

Simultaneously the management set up a system of “mini-bosses” -- interpreters, supervisors, who must regularly be given a bottle of Ricard (a popular French drink), and, after the summer holidays, gifts from the countryside. It was not until 1983 that this system was exposed by Akka Ghazi in a long television interview.

“You were not judged according to your work”, says Abdel-Razzak. “The important thing was to have good relations with these mini-bosses”. Otherwise, you would pay for it. “Mohammed, work and shut up” was the usual remark -- and if the worker complained he couldn’t work any faster, the foreman would sometimes shout, “If these Arabs go on ruling the place, we”ll go bankrupt”.

On several occasions the Moroccan embassy in Paris has used all its influence to prevent immigran workers from joining strikes, and to prevent their politicisation. “It is clear”, says Abdallah Frayggi, “that when our level of political consciousness rises, we look at Moroccan politics with different eyes”.

Sometimes the Moroccan embassy has not hesitated to interfere directly. In 1974, says Abdallah Frayggi, the Moroccan consul summoned the three or four Moroccan workers who were standing as CGT candidates and told them, “you are here to work, not to get involved in politics. You will run into problems”.

In the same year, three Moroccan activists who had joined the Socialist-led CFDT union were arrested after going back to Morocco for a holiday, and spent several weeks in jail. In 1976, Mohammed Chabounia, a CGT delegate at Poissy connected with the Moroccan Communist Party (PPS), was detained for 18 days by the Moroccan police, who interrogated him about his views -- on the Western Sahara conflict. And in the summer of 1982, Merzouk Mokhtar was arrested and held for several days by the Moroccan police, who questioned him about his activities as president of the leftwing Association des Marocains en France (AMF).

But the embassy generally prefers to deal with the immigrants indirectly, through the Amicale des Travailleurs et Commerçants marocains en France (ATCMF), set up in 1973. Like the CSL, the Amicale uses a mixture of threats and promises. Through its links with the Chaabi Bank, it has helped workers to transfer money to their families back home, or to get a loan. It has also helped to buy land at discount prices (though some of these ventures have gone bankrupt).

On the other hand, the Amicale has on occasion played a direct role. During a strike at the Renault factory in Flins its members went round the workshops -- without any authorisation to do so -- urging the immigrant workers: “Do not go on strike. It is against the interests of your country. You will be jailed when you go home”.

In fact the game played by the Moroccan embassy can be ambiguous. If it used all its influence to break strikes while President Giscard d’Estaing was in power, it changed its tune after the electoral triumph of François Mitterrand in May 1981. According to Said Amadi, spokesman for the Association des Travailleurs Marocains en France (ATMF), “The embassy had a few scores to settle with the Mitterrand government, which was considered a privileged ally of Algeria”.

Why did this system suddenly break down in the early 1980s? All the evidence links the new attitude of the immigrant workers -- their new self-confidence -- to the victory of the French left in May 1981.

“Before then”, says Dali Abdel-Razzak, “we were afraid of the Moroccan authorities. The arrival of Mitterrand helped to break the system. Giscard, (King) Hassan’s buddy, had left. We could say many things we hadn’t dared to say before”. For Abdallah Frayggi of the CGT, “The victory of the left did not change working conditions, but it made possible June 1982 -- the first strike in this factory (the Talbot plant at Poissy) since 1958”.

Akka Ghazi, the CGT leader at Citroen’s factory in Aulnay, admits that the political change in the country as a whole had a big impact in the factories. “Before the delegate elections, when we decided to stand as candidates on the CGT lists, we put ourselves under the protection of the government. We went to the Ministry of Labour, and they sent inspectors who saw people were being followed, beaten, treated like slaves; that dirty words -- such as bougnoules (wogs) -- were used for the Arabs. When the right was in power, they did not send inspectors to the factories”.

Akka Ghazi also feels that the wave of strikes sparked off in April 1982 were “provoked by the behaviour of the interpreters, the spies: these people did a lot to break up the whole system. We had reached the stage where the workers could not stand the ill-treatment any longer. I had put up with it for years. Others had put up with it for longer than I had. I reacted; other people joined me; and we succeeded in launching the movement”...

(The Middle East magazine (Excerpt) October 1984; 24 Heures, 12 Septembre 1984)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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