State categories and labour protest (2016)

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Pierre Barron, Anne Bory, Sébastien chauvin, Nicolas Jounin, Lucie Tourette (2016)

State categories and labour protest: Migrant workers and the fight for legal status in France.

Work, employment and society 30(4), 2016.


Article awarded the 2017 British Sociological Association Prize for Work, Employment & Society


From 2008 to 2010, with the support of a coalition of trade unions and immigrant rights groups under the leadership of the Confédération Générale du Travail (CGT), thousands of France’s undocumented migrant workers conducted strikes and occupied their workplaces, demanding that their employers use a recently voted law to sponsor their regularisation applications. Unheard of in French migration and labour histories, the mobilisation broke with earlier ways of fighting for legal status.

With it, France’s sans-papiers came to be known as “sans-papier workers”. Taking cues from Bourdieu’s sociology of categories, Boltanski’s historical sociology of managers in France and Vinel’s political history of the “employee” in the United States, this article traces the institutional genesis and political trajectory of the “sans-papier worker” as at once a symbolic category and an objective group, highlighting its agonistic coproduction by state policy and union strategy.

The study relies on a three-year collective ethnography including participant observation, archive collection and over a hundred in-depth interviews with migrant workers, union and civil rights organisation staff and activists, employers in the restaurant, cleaning, temporary staffing and construction industries, and national and local government officials. As the French government opened the possibility of employment-based regularisation, trade unions embraced migrant workers’ access to legal status as a labour issue. Whereas the new “intersectional” framing initially uncovered the reality of undocumented migrants at work, it gradually became an exclusive category that sorted “workers” from the others. Ultimately, the fight for “sans-papier workers” confronted labour organizations and the French state with the question of when one starts and stops being a worker.

Keywords: regularisation, trade unions, state categories, migrant workers, France, intersectionality.