In 2019, during the Yellow Vests protests in France, groups of sans-papiers workers took to the streets of Paris. They called themselves the Black Vests (les “Gilets Noirs”). This movement wanted to bring attention to a forgotten part of the workforce in the country, undocumented workers. In this blog post, I will show the importance of undocumented migrants’ work and resistance, drawing on interviews with eight food delivery riders—all Black African men who recently arrived in Paris. Despite fears of deportation and state-level structural disadvantages, and along with help from the CGT (Confédération Générale du Travail) union, the sans-papiers riders’ strikes of 2020 and 2021 led to many undocumented workers getting temporary visas. I will also discuss the role of the French state in creating and exploiting precarity.
In 2020, the food delivery platform Frichti came under the spotlight for the first time when journalists exposed how they use monthly competition between workers to boost productivity. Many more journalists then revealed that a large portion of this workforce is undocumented. In the summer of that year, Frichti deactivated 200 of its sans-papiers couriers without notice, even though the company knowingly hired them without papers:
Someone told me that Frichti was recruiting simply with your passport from home. I said: “Oh! Even if you don’t have the papers?”. If you have a passport from your country, they recruit you. We worked for years for Frichti. They knew we didn’t have the papers or the passport. They got a lot of clients because of us. For years, we worked in the rain, on the ice. We fall, we get injured, we did it all. We fought and now, Frichti wants to fire us without giving us the papers? – Siaka1
The anger of the riders following the mass deactivation sparked a series of strikes. With the help of the CGT, the riders blocked Frichti’s main hubs, which are in the central bourgeois neighborhoods of the city. The 3-day blockade forced the platform to negotiate with the strikers. Frichti then obtained temporary work visas from the state for 100 of the 200 deactivated riders. One of the main hurdle to this mobilization, according the riders, was the fear of deportation:
Many left because of the protests. Some had their accounts blocked and then went on to find other accounts to work. They stopped and left. They didn’t have confidence in the movement. –Konan
Some did not want to protest. The people are scared that if we protest, because we are sans-papiers, they will send us back home. –Bakar
There are two ways to work as a sans-papiers in platform food delivery. You can be hired directly by the platform, such as in the case of Frichti, or you can rent someone else’s profile. The latter means you must pay weekly fees to that person, who will then give you your earnings in cash. It is hard to know how many sans-papiers are renting platform delivery accounts in Paris because of the high turnover rate. Many sans-papier riders also do construction work or window cleaning, but in most cases, only for a couple of hours per week. Subletting an account, even if it costs one or two hundred euros per week, can boost the number of possible work hours. Many of the sans-papiers interviewed say it is about survival:
I did not have the papers. I had to survive. We were subletting accounts. You don’t care about suffering or inequalities. All you want is to work to be able to eat. –Bakar
All the people that come here are sans-papiers. If you don’t have the papers you don’t have a job. When you come here, if you don’t have a job we propose delivery to you. I did that with people from Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mali, etc. If you have a card from Italy you can open a Deliveroo account, an Uber account or a Stuart account. If you don’t have that, you have to sublet to someone. –Konan
This market is also built on a solidarity network among immigrants from the same region. The various migration trajectories of sans-papiers workers, Facebook groups, and word of mouth led many to food delivery, which has grown rapidly in the last years. This type of work acts as a life-jacket for newcomers and the newly undocumented, who are often in precarious housing situations. We also need to factor the costs for a metro card at 100 euros per month since most workers live in the suburbs and the price of an e-bike, which is either rented or bought using someone else’s credit card. As mentioned, subletting an account is not part-time work or additional revenue, but ‘survival-oriented’. This type of job, and the interdependency to the ‘regularized’ (the subletter), makes it temporary for most:
One brother was an ‘auto-entrepreneur’ for Stuart. He rented me his account so I worked. But I did not last long. I did 2 months like this and then I had the solution to open my own account with Frichti. This guy was never giving me all the money. I was seeing in the account 20 euros, 30 euros disappearing. – Siaka
It did not help me (subletting an account). It was desperate. When you come to a new country, those are the things that builds you. It is only about survival. –Adil
Importantly, another hurdle to resistance by sans-papiers is this interdependency to the owners of subletted account, for obvious reasons, oppose social movements for regularization. That person can threaten to simply change the password of the account:
You have nothing. The guy that is renting you the account knows that. He takes advantage of that. He knows you need it, so he will try to profit to the maximum. The owners of the accounts put pressure on us. When you start a movement, he takes his account back directly. It is hard. –Bakar
This situation is made possible by the platforms and the state turning a blind eye. Sans-papiers riders stay logged-in sometimes 6 days per week during large portion of the day—usually from noon to midnight with a break between lunch and dinner. Therefore, they provide platforms a large ‘ready-to-deliver’ workforce. Lastly, scams are very common in the online market for subletting an account:
Working for someone that gives you a little bit of money was difficult. Others, they don’t sleep, just work. It is his account, you are his. If he wants, he deletes you and you can’t connect anymore. Some do that, they work for nothing. –Siaka
He didn’t give me the money. He told me to work one more week. The week after that, he didn’t give me the money of the previous week. I worked another week. After 2 weeks, he gave me nothing. We see little motivation. Many riders work in Paris subletting accounts so it is hard. They don’t want to lose this opportunity. We don’t want to force them to join the movement because it is what gives them something to eat. –Adil
The book “On boss ici, on reste ici!” (2011) traces the history of sans-papiers strikes in France since the 1980’s. It argues that sans-papiers workers are not invisible in France; they are voluntarily hidden by the state. They live, move and work with borrowed identities or false papers. Adding to this is France’s recent history, which is marked by the tightening of the ‘contrôles’ (street arrests for the verification of papers by police) (Jobard 2012). These arrests can also lead to deportation and/or detention (Spencer & Triandafyllidou 2020).
In many of the interviews, the state comes up as a key factor in creating precarious citizenship. Indirectly, the French state is both producing undocumented workers and profiting off them through the subletting market. With respect to the former, migrants face various protracted bureaucratic procedures that lead to their undocumented status. As for the latter, the case of the food delivery platform Stuart is interesting because here the state has a direct connection to the account subletting market. Stuart is owned by La Poste—a fully public bank owned by the French State and its Caisse de Dépot. As seen in the various riders’ online groups, Stuart is also one of the three biggest platforms where riders sublet food delivery accounts (along with UberEats and Deliveroo), which contributes to its revenues. In 2021, Stuart came under the spotlight following sans-papiers strikes. Many riders, along with the CGT, mobilized against pay cuts, fear of injury, and other punitive strategies that occurred through a partnership with the grocery stores chain giant Monoprix. This event led to some sans-papiers getting temporary work permits and revealed the hidden problems in the platform-state partnership of La Poste and Stuart (Jeannot & Cottin-Marx 2022).
In conclusion, platforms’ profits are possible in part because of the large sans-papiers workforce that must stay online and be ready-to-deliver due to their precarious situation. The fight for papers and against exploitation is part of a long history of migrants’ struggles in France. This case of sans-papiers delivery riders not only shows that they are essential part of the delivery work in Paris, but also of the resistance to capitalist urbanization.
Émile Baril is a PhD Candidate at York University.
- The names of the couriers have been changed to protect their identities. Interviews were conducted in French.
Barron, P., Bory, A., Jounin, N., & Tourette, L. (2011). On boss ici, on reste ici! La grève des sans-papiers: une aventure inédite. Paris: La Découverte.
Jeannot, G., & Cottin-Marx, S. (2022). La privatisation numérique. Déstabilisation et réinvention du service public. Paris: Raisons d'Agir.
Jobard, F., Lévy, R., Lamberth, J., Névanen, S., & Wiles-Portier, E. (2012). Measuring Appearance-Based Discrimination: an Analysis of Identity Checks in Paris. Population, 67(3), 349-375.
Spencer, S., & Triandafyllidou, A. (2020). Migrants with Irregular Status in Europe: Evolving Conceptual and Policy Challenges: SpringerOpen.