ICFTU OnLine – July 10, 2006(1)

Spotlight on Joseph Burnotte (FGTB-Belgium)

Brussels 10 July 2006 (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 because of their irregular situation.

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

Joseph Burnotte (who works for the FGTB’s Wallonian Interregional organisation and CEPAG, a Workers’ Education Centre), 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.

What is the FGTB’s view of the structure of the movement supporting undocumented people?

The FGTB Wallonian Interregional organisation and FGTB-Brussels belong to a platform of organisations called CIRÉ (2), which coordinates initiatives for and with refugees and foreigners (“Coordination et Initiatives pour et avec les Réfugiés et Etrangers”). So we take our decisions along with the 20 other members of CIRÉ. Through CIRÉ, we are also a member of the Forum on Asylum and Immigration (“Forum Asile-Migration”) (3), another body that was created in 2002 and now has over 120 French and Dutch speaking member organisations. Our position is clear: we support regularisation based on clear criteria.

To help groups of undocumented people, the FGTB is currently providing logistical help to groups within the churches, an initiative that started just over one year ago. In Namur and Charleroi, the FGTB has helped run platforms supporting undocumented people, largely with the MOC (Christian Workers’ Movement).

FGTB activists and delegates have, for their part, been running awareness-raising campaigns supported by the confederal structures. Some undocumented workers were, for instance, invited to speak at some Labour Day events.

What is the FGTB’s approach on affiliation of undocumented people?

Owing to the way the FGTB is organised internally, each regional organisation’s approach is based on its own views on this issue. So the FGTB does not have a general approach. That said, the regional organisations are keen to display solidarity and affiliation of undocumented persons has started in certain regions.

The Flemish Interregional organisation, the Vlaamse Intergewestelijke (VLIG), decided to charge the minimum affiliation fee – the one applied to unemployed workers and students. At the FGTB in Namur and Charleroi, we preferred a symbolic form of affiliation without a fee. At the FGTB Liège, the union provides legal support through a partnership with the Wallonian Region.

As you can see, there is not a common approach within the FGTB. We are giving this issue a lot of careful thought. We want to work out how best to integrate these people in our various structures.

When an undocumented person joins up, what services does the FGTB provide?

Again that varies from one regional organisation to the next. In Liège, the FGTB provides legal protection. In Namur, logistic support is the main service and is mainly provided to the reception centres that house undocumented people. In the longer term, a legal support service will be provided everywhere. As things stand, the FGTB’s action may seem rather disjointed. I am preparing a briefing note with guidelines on our areas of involvement. In addition, in CIRÉ we are considering a number of initiatives with the CSC, such as setting up a fund for covering the annual affiliation fees of undocumented people while providing them with legal support. Our aim is to build up legal expertise in this area and to promote this legal support system. We are working on making the affiliation arrangements consistent.

How successful is this policy of organising undocumented people?

It’s hard to give a simple answer because each region is different. In Namur, a lot of people have joined up. In Brussels, the FGTB and CSC regional organisations are less keen to provide free membership since they are already offering legal support.

Is organising a step towards the regularisation of these people and the acquisition of work permits?

There is a major problem when protecting undocumented workers and that is the disproportionate nature of the repressive measures. If workers are caught on a building site without a residence permit they are sent back to the border. The employer, on the other hand, is either fined or sent to prison.

At the moment, the Labour Inspectorate, the police and the Immigration Office (“Office des Etrangers”) are doing regular raids. This is very risky for the illegal workers, so it is clear that the regularisation of undocumented workers is a prerequisite for their obtaining work permits.

Do the FGTB and the CSC have similar views on this issue?

On the basics, yes. We are working out our precise approaches in our respective regional organisations.

How are your members reacting to your commitment to regularise undocumented people?

There was a lot of sympathy at the Labour Day events. That said, in certain branch committees we have seen that it is not always easy to gain support for the struggle for regularisation.

Interview by Pierre Martinot

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 seeks 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 three objectives: it should be quick, respect the person’s right to legal defence and include 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 not been received within six months of the application being submitted, the applicant should receive a registration certificate entitling him/her to a work permit.