Two undocumented Malian workers living in Montreuil, France, were victims of serious work-related accidents in April. Bary Keita, 27, died of his injuries. Birima Konaté, 47, was seriously injured. In both cases, their employers tried to conceal the facts. Their families are now demanding the truth.
Sitting on the sofa of his sister's living room, who is hosting him during his recovery, Birima Konaté grimaces with pain at the slightest movement. With his back propped up by a large velvet cushion and his legs covered with a pink blanket, this 47-year-old undocumented Malian recounts, both in French and Soninke, the accident that almost cost him his life on April 22.
Employees of the contractor for whom he had been working for some time came to pick him up as usual at the door of his foyer that morning, along with a few other workers. Konaté's job at the building site was to be in charge, with another worker, of shearing scrap metal on the floor of the third storey of the building. However, this actually weakened the concrete slab on which the Malian was standing. At the end of the day, a piece of the floor collapsed and Konaté fell down three floors. He landed on the ground floor and almost lost consciousness.
From that moment on, he says he no longer remembers what happened. "I only remember that some workers helped me to walk a few meters to the car and that another employee drove me to the home," he says. No one alerted the paramedics.
'The car just dropped him off in the road'
On the day of the accident, like every day, a dozen people were on the sidewalk in front of the lodgings in Montreuil (Paris suburb) Konaté lives in. Locals were chatting on plastic chairs next to small stalls selling fruit, cigarettes and peanuts. Malé Doucouré, another resident at the lodgings, was among them and remembers when Konaté was brought back after the accident.
Speaking with InfoMigrants in front of the lodgings in early May, Doucouré recalls the scene he witnessed on April 22: "The car just dropped him off right there in the road. Birima got out of the back and, when he arrived, he didn't look at all well. We asked him what was wrong. He didn't speak but he signaled to us that his back was hurting, so we brought a chair to sit him down."
According to him, the driver of the car barely waited for Konaté's car door to be closed before tearing off again.
It was only then that there was a call for help. An ambulance arrived first, followed by firemen and then police. Konaté was rushed to Beaujon hospital in Clichy. The Malian had suffered a serious fracture of the second lumbar vertebra. He was operated on the next day and narrowly escaped paralysis of his lower limbs.
A few days earlier, another undocumented Malian worker, was also the victim of a dramatic work accident. On April 17, 27-year-old Bary Keita fell while working on a construction site in Pantin, Seine-Saint-Denis. The young man fell into a coma after the impact and was also sent to Beaujon Hospital in Clichy, where he was immediately operated on.
"The next morning, at 7 a.m., they called me to tell me that his situation had deteriorated during the night and, at 9 a.m., they told me that his brain was dead and that he would never wake up again," recounts Boubou Konaté, Bary's cousin and his closest relative in France [this is a different family from Birima Konaté's], who spoke to InfoMigrants several days after the accident in the center of Montreuil.
Chain of subcontractors
"The conditions of exploitation [of undocumented migrants] are absolutely deplorable," denounces Gaël, a supporter of the Montreuil undocumented migrants' collective who does not wish his surname to be published. "Bary Keita did not have a helmet [...] The bosses take advantage of the administrative situation of undocumented migrants. The latter have no choice but to accept any jobs with little regard for working conditions."
Patrick Dupuits, a member of the Solidaires union, in charge of defending cases at industrial tribunals, is well aware of the fragility of undocumented workers and the risks of work-related accidents that they incur. He belives the subcontracting system puts undocumented workers at most risk and complicates their regularization through work.
"When there are calls for tender, big companies respond. They take their commission and then call on a subcontractor who may, in turn, call on another subcontractor and take a commission. Each time, the budget allocated to the site decreases. So, in the end, the last subcontractor has a tiny budget and takes undocumented workers. It's a vicious circle", explains Dupuits in the premises of the labor exchange of Montreuil. Without a valid work contract, it is impossible for migrants to obtain a residence permit in France.
Declaration to the CPAM
In theory, when a work-related accident occurs, it is the employer's responsibility to declare it to the Caisse primaire d'assurance maladie (CPAM), the primary health assurance fund. Due to a shared database, this means the labor inspectorate instantly has direct knowledge of it. But in the case of undocumented workers, employers are particularly reluctant to declare an accident.
"There is certainly under-reporting," says a labor inspector in the Ile-de-France region who wished to remain anonymous. "If you declare an accident involving someone you hired illegally, you are worried you will attract attention. But for us, undocumented or not, it's someone who was working, we don't look at the administrative situation."
Depending on the severity of the facts, reporting an accident can lead to an investigation. "We can be contacted by the police department but also by the prosecutor. We carry out a field investigation, if possible, we also hear the various protagonists, witnesses [...] If there have been violations of the Labor Code, we can officially register them and send them to the prosecutor who will have the power to prosecute the employer," says the inspector.
Employers found guilty can be fined heavily and even imprisoned in the case of serious accidents.
An investigation was opened by the police in Pantin and by the labor inspectorate after Keita's death. The boss of the young Malian was interviewed by the police. But, when they reported his testimony, his cousin Boubou Konaté had the impression that the employer had minimized the accident. "He told the police that Bary had fallen from a kind of scaffolding on wheels, which was only about 1.5 meters high. They showed me the photo and it seems impossible," he contests.
The operating report from Beaujon hospital, which InfoMigrants was able to consult, gives a much more serious version of the facts. Bary Keita suffered a fracture of the skull with frontal depression and a fracture of the first cervical vertebra. The clinical summary of the surgeon who operated on him evokes a "fall of 5 meters".
Konaté's boss was also interviewed by the police. But, questioned by the family of the Malian worker, he defends himself against any responsibility in the accident and was quick to offer Konaté and his family "an arrangement" in exchange for their silence.
'I almost died too'
But Konaté's family - like Keita's family - does not intend to remain silent. They all want to know the exact circumstances in which their loved ones were seriously injured. Boubou Konaté says, "the hardest thing is not knowing how it happened. Especially for him who also works in the construction industry. He would like to be able to go to the construction site where the Bary accident took place, in Pantin, but the police refuse to tell him where he is.
On May 1, Boubou Konaté took part in the tribute ceremony organized for his cousin in front of Montreuil City Hall. In the audience gathered in front of a portrait of the deceased young man and a banner "Bary Keita, undocumented worker dead", there was also Semba, the best friend of the deceased Malian. This tall guy was upset by the death of his friend and also wants to know what happened. "I miss him especially in the late afternoon. It was always at that time that we sat together to discuss on our way home from work," he confides.
On May 17, Keita's body was returned to his relatives and a collective prayer was organized at the Montreuil mosque to pay final tribute to him. A few days later, Boubou Konaté left for Mali to bring his cousin's body back to his relatives.
He also wants to keep telling Keita's story "for the other undocumented migrants". A few weeks ago, in a workers' hostel in Romainville, a man overheard him telling his cousin's accident. "He started crying," Boubou recalls. "I asked him why he was crying. He said, 'The exact same thing happened to me, and I almost died too'."