A migrant is arrested by police in the La Chapelle neighbourhood in northern Paris | Credit: Reuters
A migrant is arrested by police in the La Chapelle neighbourhood in northern Paris | Credit: Reuters

In order to work, asylum seekers in France must wait for nine months and obtain authorization from the local police authorities, which is notoriously hard to get. Due to these difficulties, many asylum seekers end up working illegally. But this comes with numerous dangers and difficulties.

After living in Europe without proper documentation for many years, Alioune Traore knows a thing or two about the struggles of working illegally.

"At first, I was picking tomatoes in Italy," says Traore, who is originally from Senegal. "It was a really difficult experience. We were paid $5 to fill up crates that were almost as tall as I am. I knew some men from Burkina Faso and Poland who’d take drugs so they could keep going longer and fill more crates. They could make $50 or even $60 a day doing that."

During the months he spent picking tomatoes, Traore witnessd a lot of suffering. Some of his fellow workers were injured in workplace accidents, while others suffered from hernias or hemorrhages. He himself could barely manage the physical strain of the work.

In 2011, Traore decided to leave Italy for France, where he had a few contacts.

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Migrants in France face many administrative hurdles to be able to work  Credit Philippe Huguen

Workplace accidents

"When new migrants arrive in France, they borrow papers from a friend, a brother or a cousin who can legally work in order to find a job," he says. "That’s what I did."

Traore quickly found work on a demolition site alongside about 30 other undocumented workers.

"I worked there for a year,” he says. “Then the boss was arrested because he didn’t have the proper paperwork either."

So Traore had to look for a different job.

"I started working in an African supermarket," he says. “I earned 1000 euros a month for working 60-hour weeks. I managed everything: The register, the customers, the cleaning. It was a lot to handle, but I didn’t have much choice."

You’re undocumented, so you can’t go to the police.

Without any explanation, Traore’s boss would hold back 200 to 300 euros from his paychecks. After three months, Traore had had enough. He quit.  

"At that point, the boss owed me 1100 euros," Traore says. "I wanted my money. But he said, ‘What are you going to do about it? You're working illegally, so you can’t go to the police.’ That’s the reality for undocumented people living in France."

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Health risks and exploitation

With the help of the rights group the Coalition Internationale des Sans-Papiers et Migrants (the International Coalition of Undocumented Migrants) and one of its members, volunteer Francoise Carrasse, Traore managed to recover the money that his boss owed him.

"This kind of exploitation is really common, even if by doing so, bosses risk a 100,000 euro fine," Carrasse told InfoMigrants. "They know that the employee is undocumented, so they take advantage of it to underpay them."

It's also common for bosses to pay undocumented workers with fake checks, she added.  

Risks of illegal work for migrants

"If an undocumented worker has a workplace accident, which is common because most do difficult and dangerous jobs, then he or she can end up in a terrible situation. Many get medical aid from the state (Aide médicale d’État (AME)), but it's far from enough to cover the huge medical bills that you can incur if you break a bone, for example," lawyer Heloise Mary told InfoMigrants. 

Mary is a co-founder of the French organization BAAM, which provides assistance to migrants (BAAM is an acronym for the Bureau d'accueil et d'accompagnement des migrants, or the Office of Welcome and Support for Migrants).

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A nine-month wait for a work permit...that never arrives

In some cases, refugees or migrants who have been given the right to work legally choose to continue working illegally, so that they can keep receiving benefits. If discovered, an illegal worker risks losing state benefits and, while workers are not fined like employers, they may have to reimburse some of the government benefits that they have received in the past.  

French law requires asylum seekers to wait nine months before they can apply for the right to work. But even after the waiting period is over, the process for obtaining a work permit is long, confusing and discouraging.

According to the French government: "To get the right to work, an asylum seeker must first apply for and receive a temporary work permit by presenting a contract or a document promising that he or she will be hired. The length of the work permit can't be longer than six months. The work permit can be renewed until OFPRA (the office for the protection of refugees and stateless persons) makes a decision."

"No one actually uses this process, especially because asylum seekers are already drowning in all of the administrative procedures related to their asylum claims, which usually take between a year and a year and a half to process," says Mary. "Moreover, most of the time, the police take their sweet time to process work permits. Migrants quite simply don't get any response from their applications, which encourages unethical people to exploit undocumented workers," she says.

Many migrants in France turn to working illegally in order to survive  Credit  Mehdi Chebil

'Renting or borrowing' real papers is very expensive

With no real possibility to lodge a formal complaint, or follow-up on their applications, working illegally is often the only possibility for survival for many migrants.

To make matters more confusing, some migrants start working illegally as a step to legalizing their status. But, once again, this path is stacked with seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

"Before, migrants most often used false papers with their names on it. However, since the 2007 Sarkozy law, which requires companies to systematically verify the papers of all foreign workers, a new system has emerged. Now, undocumented workers 'borrow or rent' real papers from other people. That’s what Alioune Traore did," says Carrasse. But this approach is also risky.

"Very often, the person who lends you his or her papers demands a large payment in exchange," Carrasse says. "Because, if that person has to declare two incomes, then he or she will pay higher taxes and see his or her benefits decrease or disappear."

To add to the difficulties, under the 2012 administrative regulation, 'Circulaire Valls', undocumented workers who want to regularize their status are required to present salary receipts, in their name, for the previous five years.

"In summary, we ask for pay slips from people who don’t have the right to work. It makes no sense and the government knows it," Carrasse says.

Carrasse has already traveled to Mali and Senegal to warn would-be migrants about the actual situation for undocumented people living in Europe.

"It’s really hard to make people understand," she says. "They believe what they see on television. Those who are already in Europe send back money or visit, with their arms full of presents, even though they live in terrible conditions in France. Some of them sleep six or seven to a room in France."

Meanwhile, Traore continues to struggle with the administrative requirements to be able to work in France. Soon, he will have managed to gather proof of about seven years worth of work. Carrasse hopes that this will help to finally improve his situation.


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