Page last updated at 22:25 GMT, Wednesday, 16 April 2008 23:25 UK

Firms and unions back French illegals

By Alasdair Sandford

Bakary Camara
Good references are not enough for Mr Camara to stay

In his rented flat in the Paris suburbs of Seine-St-Denis, Bakary Camara leafs through pages of character references from friends and colleagues.

The praise is fulsome, but so far to no avail. Despite his job with a local roofing company, the 29-year-old has been given formal notice to leave the country and risks being sent back to Mali.

He is not alone.

President Nicolas Sarkozy's government has pledged to deport 25,000 illegal immigrants each year, in spite of a plea from employers who say the clampdown is also penalising French businesses.

Some firms complain they are being forced to sack foreign workers they cannot replace, and they resent being forced to "play the police" in the battle against illegal immigration.

Now some companies have also been hit by a strike.

On Tuesday, some 300 foreign workers - including cleaners and restaurant staffs, all with contracts and backed by the CGT union - walked out on strike in the Paris-area to back up their demand for resident visas.

Going through the motions

Mr Camara came to France in 2001, learned his trade here and became site foreman, overseeing work on roofs all over the Paris area.

Today in France, it's hard to find a qualified worker like Camara
Manager in roofing company

His problems began last summer when, following an accident at work, the local benefits office refused to pay his medical expenses.

The reason: his resident visa was fake.

Successive legal appeals have failed to convince the French authorities that he should be allowed to stay.

"I provided all the documents, but for me it is a formality," he says.

"There's no chance of success. You make an application; it's rejected."

Very unfair

For his employer, the roofer's case is a headache.

"Today in France it's hard to find a qualified worker like Camara," says one of his managers, who requested anonymity.

Twelve of the company's 20 employees are from Africa or the Caribbean. Its turnover rose 30% last year, which it puts down to the contribution of its foreign workers.

The roofing firm manager says the firm acts in good faith, recruiting from local agencies and always employing staff within the system.

"They pay pension and social security contributions, they pay taxes," he points out. "Yet afterwards they are told that they have no rights. I think it's very unfair."

Touchy mission

Elsewhere, plenty of other non-EU workers have also been threatened with deportation.

Bakary Camara
You come to survive and help the country, like any good citizen, but they won't let me
Bakary Camara

At one well-known Paris restaurant, seven employees who were in France illegally were finally given permission to stay after much media coverage.

The hotel and catering industry is one of several in France suffering from an acute labour shortage, despite the relatively high unemployment rate.

The French Confederation of Small and Medium Sized Businesses argues that the hard line taken by the authorities with immigrant workers is threatening the survival of some firms.

It is also angry that employers are now obliged to check the authenticity of their new recruits' papers with local prefectures.

"Employers' organisations have always supported the struggle against illegal work," argues Jean-Francois Veysset, the confederation's vice-chairman.

"But it's the government's role to make sure that these people have papers to stay and work in our country.

"Company bosses should not be responsible for this particularly touchy mission."

Straight forward system

Not all employers object to the new rules.

Sepur, a refuse collection company, employs 1,800 mostly foreign workers in the Paris area.

The human resources director, Yann Gallant, frequently faxes the local prefecture to verify new employees' documents, and says the authorities reply promptly.

"Sometimes we have a problem but it's very rare," he says.

"It's a great protection for the firm. If the papers are false you can't employ the person, and if the papers are right you can."

"It's a step towards stopping clandestine work in France," he says, though he also admits it is hard to find European workers who are prepared to empty dustbins for a living.

Secret life

In January, the French government responded to the problem of labour shortages by sending a circular to police districts listing the trades experiencing recruitment difficulties, region by region.

It specified that in such cases non-EU workers could, under strict conditions, be allowed temporary visas.

In the Paris area, Mr Camara's post as "construction site foreman" is one of those listed as being hard to fill, but the authorities have cited family reasons for refusing to grant him a visa.

For the time being he is still working, pending his appeal.

During one recent trip outside Paris, police temporarily detained the roofers' lorry to check their identification papers.

One officer told the group he thought "all Africans were crooks", Mr Camara recalls, insisting he simply came to France because there was no work in Mali.

"I'm ashamed of this clandestine existence," he says.

"You don't come to a country to stir up trouble. You come to survive and help the country, like any good citizen, but they won't let me."

Required workers

Earlier this month, another young Malian drowned accidentally after jumping into a river to escape a police identity check.

The French government remains committed to its policy of "selective immigration", while threatening to deport those in France illegally.

But its critics argue that were it not for the work many of them do, large parts of the French economy would grind to a halt.

A version of this feature can be heard on Business Daily which is broadcast repeatedly on BBC World Service radio.

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