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Trade union protection for undocumented workers

Spotlight on Jacques Debatty (CSC-Belgium)

Trade union protection for undocumented workers (1)

Brussels (ICFTU OnLine): Every day, several thousand undocumented workers are contributing to Belgium's economic growth. Despite their often unacceptable working conditions, these workers are unable to defend themselves or their rights owing to their irregular situation.

Denouncing what they regard as a "social scandal", the FGTB and the CSC are critical of the government's deafening silence with regard to the regularisation of undocumented people. In their view the repressive measures being taken are also disproportionate: fines, or even prison terms, for those employers using illegal workers, and expulsion from the country for the undocumented workers concerned...

Jacques Debatty, Deputy Federal Secretary at the CSC Brussels Office, tells us how organising undocumented workers is a vital step towards ensuring their dignity, and explains the unions' campaign for permanent criteria in regularisation procedures.

How does the CSC view the development of the undocumented people's movement in Belgium?

In Brussels we are at the forefront of that movement, though there are undocumented people in Wallonia and Flanders too. Though it did not lead the movement, the CSC provided some practical assistance (meals, support to leaders, etc.) to the group that first occupied a church, Saint Boniface in Ixelles, starting on 19 October 2005. This resulted in the regularisation of a large number of undocumented people. News of that first wave of regularisation clearly spread fast and other undocumented people wanted their situation regularised. So those events were, in a sense, the precursors of the current movement. The Union for Protection of Undocumented People ("L'Union pour la Défense des Sans Papiers, UDEP") coordinates the actions of the undocumented people and was set up by those people themselves.

As well as regularisation, does the CSC have a policy on free trade union membership for undocumented people?

We are not in favour of free affiliation for undocumented people since every situation is different. Even though they are working illegally, some undocumented workers get a regular wage. As we see it, those workers can afford to pay a membership fee. Membership is a strong form of commitment that enables the union to provide services. A symbolic form of membership is not a lasting solution for structuring the undocumented people's movement. We do not regard this as a temporary problem but as a structural, ongoing situation that needs to be treated as such. That is why we are asking undocumented people to pay a monthly fee of 2.83 euros. At the moment CSC-Brussels has about 100 such members. But the whole question of union membership raises broader issues. Since just after the war the CSC has been considering the question of organising migrant workers in national groups, in particular Italians, Portuguese, Turks and Moroccans.

What form of union services are provided in return for that membership fee?

Clearly, the fee entitles the people to all the services the CSC provides to its members. These include the provision of legal support when an undocumented person requires it. We give help in procedures that are not covered by industrial tribunals. We are currently negotiating with the CIRÉ (2), which coordinates initiatives for and with refugees and foreigners ("Coordination et Initiatives pour et avec les Réfugiés et Etrangers"), ways of covering some of these legal procedures and building up some case law in this area. The CSC also has contacts with Christian lawyers willing to defend undocumented people free of charge (a "pro deo" service). We also provide help with procedures for obtaining work permits. This is an area where there is little expertise and the CSC is getting increasingly involved. Our union is in favour of providing new forms of services specifically for migrant workers. Collective action, including a platform of demands, will be the best method for getting rid of illegal work.

What are the CSC's demands concerning the regularisation of undocumented people?

The CSC is an active member of the Forum on Asylum and Immigration
("Forum Asile-Migration") (3), together with the FGTB-ABVV and some 100 NGOs. Together we are fighting the discriminatory and arbitrary policy that the government has been pursuing for several years now. That is at the root of the undocumented people's sense of injustice. As long as that ambiguous policy remains, undocumented people will continue their actions, including the occupation of churches or hunger strikes. We now think the government has a choice to make: either it will have to face increasing action from the undocumented people or it should establish some permanent criteria for regularisation that are applied by a committee that respects the people's entitlement to legal defence.

What are you planning for the months ahead?

Following the success of the demonstration in Brussels on 17 June, together with the other members of the Forum on Asylum and Immigration we will be campaigning for a transparent policy based on regularisation criteria set out in a law. We are working to obtain progress on the concrete proposal that we submitted to all the democratic groups in the Parliament. Elections will be held at the end of this year and in 2007. The upcoming communal and general elections will give us a chance to campaign for a regularisation policy.

Permanent criteria and a transparent assessment procedure

Within the Asylum-Immigration Forum ("Forum Asile-Migration"), the FGTB and the CSC produced a proposal on regularisation that established some fixed criteria and a clear procedure for assessing applications for regularisation. The proposal wants to replace the current discriminatory policy with a permanent policy.

A. The permanent criteria:

- Long procedure (3 years of asylum, family re-grouping or regularisation procedures)

- Serious illnesses, for which there is no, or insufficient access to adequate treatment in the departure countries.

- Impossibility of return for material reasons: this applies to any person unable to acquire the travel or residence documents needed to return to his/her country of origin.

- Lasting attachments that can only be maintained through obtaining a residence permit, or where such permission is the only alternative to the distress that would otherwise be caused.

- Unaccompanied minors must be granted a legal status with lasting effect.

B. The procedure for examining applications:

This procedure needs to have 3 objectives: it should be quick, respect the person's right to legal defence and comprise an individual examination of the case. The introduction of an application precludes the execution of any expulsion measure before the application has been answered.

If a decision has still not been received 6 months after the application was made, the applicant should receive a registration certificate entitling him/her to a work permit.

(1) Please also see the interview with Joseph Burnotte (FGTB-Belgium) on the same theme at this address:

(2) More information :

(3) More information


N.B.: The CGSLB (an ICFTU-affiliated Belgian confederation like the FGTB) recognises the legitimacy of some applications for regularisation and is critical of the lengthy and too often inhumane regularisation procedures, but has some objections to the actions taken by some platforms of organisations fighting for the regularisation of undocumented people. At the CGSLB, "when people want to join our organisation we wouldn't dream of asking if they have all their papers!" says Bernard Noël, National Secretary of the organisation. "If an undocumented worker is not treated correctly at work he can ask us for help. Sometimes we are approached by people who have not been paid or have had occupational accidents. Those people who do not meet our normal criteria for affiliation are given appropriate advice, such as which bodies working on discrimination and racism to contact". The CGSLB is running information campaigns in the most affected sectors, such as the hotel and catering industry, building and horticulture. "

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