“Slavery is over, Emmaüs is fed up with it. » The words are strong and they are repeated from picket lines to demonstrations. Since the beginning of July, around twenty companions from Halte Saint-Jean, the Emmaus community of Saint-André-lez-Lille, in the North, have been on strike, supported by the Committee of Undocumented Migrants 59 and the CGT.
As the online newspaper Street Press revealed in June, the companions concerned, all undocumented foreigners, claim to work 40 hours a week for €150 per month, in a climate of permanent pressure, without being able to stop in the event of health or pregnancy problems, and with the threat of being expelled from the community in the event of rebellion.
“If we held on, it’s because the director promised us that we would be regularized after three years,” Happy, the Halte’s Nigerian companion, told La Croix this summer. But this mother of four children, welcomed in 2018, is still subject to an obligation to leave French territory (OQTF).
A preliminary investigation into human trafficking and hidden work was launched by the courts in May. “If the facts are true, they are completely outside the core of the values of the Emmaüs movement,” reacts Antoine Sueur, the president of Emmaüs France.
“These accusations are just a web of false allegations,” fumes Pierre Duponchel, president of the board of directors of the Halte, who supports its director. According to him, each companion, “required to make his contribution to the activities” of the Halte, is accommodated free of charge and receives, in addition to food packages, “precarious occupation compensation” of a little more than €300 for a single person, from whom water and electricity charges and housing insurance are subtracted “to get them used to adapting to life outside the community”.
And, he insists, “no promise of regularization has been made to them for the good reason that it is not Emmaüs which decides but the prefecture, which assesses more and more according to the capacity for professional integration . We only present solid files and to date 46 people and 55 children have been regularized, that is to say all our files except one, last March. This situation leads to frustration among those who cannot obtain papers. »
These arguments did not convince the strikers, who since September 28 have occupied the premises of the Halte Saint-Jean. On the contrary, since then, companions, accompanied by the CGT, have gone on strike in three other communities in the department, in Grande-Synthe, in Tourcoing and in Nieppe.
Strikers in front of the Emmaus community of Halte Saint-Jean, July 11, 2023. / Anouk Desury/Light Motiv
“Each time, we find a system of exploitation where the companions, all without papers, accept unworthy conditions in the hope of regularization which does not come”, estimates Samuel Meegens, of the CGT departmental Union of the North . In Wambrechies, a fifth community is on strike, but according to a different pattern since this time it is for the companions to support their dismissed director.
As for Emmaüs France, which sent emissaries to the site, “with the management of Saint-André and Grande-Synthe, dialogue is proving impossible,” indicates Antoine Sueur. And we believe that a red line has been crossed. » The two managements have in fact withdrawn their allowance from the strikers. In Grande-Synthe, management has even initiated legal proceedings against them, giving the courts a list of names, “which puts them in danger given their administrative situation” according to Emmaüs France.
The situation has become so tense that the board of directors of Emmaüs France is organizing this Wednesday, October 3, an “exceptional meeting, with the situation of Saint-André and Grande-Synthe as the main course,” explains Tarek Daher, new general delegate of the movement. We will discuss precautionary measures which could go as far as the withdrawal of Emmaus membership and the possible launch of procedures which could lead to their definitive exclusion. » However, he warns, “we should not suggest that because there are some excesses, all communities behave like that”.
A highly respected model
In the landscape of associations, the model of Emmaus communities, the historic channel of the Emmaus movement, is very respected. When, in November 1949, Abbé Pierre met Georges Legay, a desperate former convict, he told him: “I can’t help you, I have nothing to give you. But you, who have nothing to lose, can help me help others. »
With Georges, who will become the first companion, Emmaüs invents an operation, housing those who need it, who, to live without social assistance, create their own activity, by recovering abandoned objects to restore them and resell them. “They invented the circular economy before everyone was talking about it,” underlines a former executive of the movement, who does not wish to be quoted. And there is also this pride in being a companion, which lies in the fact of rebuilding oneself by living from one’s work and helping in turn, which makes it a fairly rare model in the associative biotope. »
Now, 123 communities exist, housing nearly 7,000 companions. But, for a very long time, this model remained outside any legal framework. At least until Martin Hirsch, former president of Emmaüs who became high commissioner for active solidarity under Nicolas Sarkozy, created in 2008 for the Oacas (community reception and solidarity activities organization) a status of “solidarity worker », which guarantees companions accommodation, social support and a financial allowance, recently increased from €350 to €392. If the 117 out of 128 Emmaüs communities which have accepted Oacas status contribute to Urssaf on the basis of 40% of the minimum wage, they nevertheless remain outside of labor law.
More and more undocumented immigrants
To this separate status, “two developments have been added which change a lot of things,” explains Bernard Asseman, one of the administrators of Emmaüs Tourcoing. On the one hand, the recovery-resale activity has become very competitive, which makes the economic equation more complicated. On the other hand, the profile of the companions has changed. There are more and more families but also more and more undocumented immigrants who come knocking on our doors because they have no other solution. »
Today, according to Emmaüs France, 70% of companions are without a residence permit. To find a way out, Emmaüs suggested an article finally adopted in the 2018 immigration law making regularization possible for companions hosted for at least three years. Possible but not certain. However, “for some time now, it has become more difficult to obtain regularizations and the companions are turning against us,” continues Bernard Asseman.
“All this creates the conditions for exploitation at all levels of companions in many communities,” estimates the man we will call Xavier, who wishes to remain anonymous but has been collecting testimonies from companions for years. While the welcome of companions is supposed to be unconditional, regardless of their productivity, “if you are sick or disabled, you risk being told that there is no place. Conversely, if you have your driving license, you will be welcome,” he explains. He also sees the generalization of a sort of trial period “where one must prove oneself as a volunteer before being able to be taken on as a companion and receive the nest egg”.
Abuses that are difficult to punish
As for the work, “it is often grueling and it is rare for companions to have access to safety equipment.” Work accidents are rarely reported and sick leave is rarely observed. However, “the person in charge of the community has all the power over the companion: if he is not happy with him, he can ask him to leave from one day to the next, including during the winter break. » The companion then loses not only his job and his income but also his roof. In Emmaüs jargon, this practice, called “PSG” for “nest egg, bag, station”, is said to be common.
Daniel Jarreau, former volunteer and administrator at Emmaüs Indre, has observed this type of practice for years in his community, run for more than twenty years by the same director, employed directly by the Association of Emmaüs Communities, as is is the case for a large number of communities. “While administrators are criminally responsible for what happens in the community, we do not have hierarchical authority over it,” he explains.
Supported by several dozen members of the association, he tried to run for president of the association to carry out this project. Which immediately triggered a strike of companions favorable to the director, who denies any irregularity, then an open war between the pro- and anti-director, which resulted in the exclusion of 41 volunteers from the association, to avoid that they take power at an extraordinary general assembly. “And Emmaus France, which should be the guarantor of Abbé Pierre’s values and which is aware of everything, does not help us,” believes Daniel Jarreau today.
In fact, this is not the first time that Emmaüs France has been alerted to abuses concerning certain communities. Lescar-Pau, the most famous of them with its annual festival which welcomes many personalities, has been in the crosshairs for many years. At the end of yet another audit carried out in spring 2023, Emmaüs France nevertheless sent a series of recommendations to Germain Sarhy, its charismatic founder… who declared in the press that he would not respect them.
As all communities are independent associations, Emmaüs France has little other means of retaliation than to exclude them from the movement. But he walks on eggshells. In 2018, following serious dysfunctions, Emmaüs voted to exclude Emmaüs Gironde. Before being rejected by the courts.
However, around fifteen communities, angry to see Emmaüs France meddling in their affairs, are starting to throw up their hands. “Emmaüs France is run by people who do not know what a companion is and we want to return to these fundamentals,” explains Dominique Boisseau, director of the community of Saint-Aunès, near Montpellier, who created in May 2023 the Ceve association (Community together to live Emmaüs), which includes a dozen communities, including since September that of Dunkerque Grande-Synthe.
These rebels decided in September to only pay half of the contribution owed by each community to Emmaüs France. A strong sign of independence. “I don’t know if we can speak of a risk of implosion,” concludes the former Emmaüs executive. But what is certain is that things are rocking in the Emmaüs house and that there is a lot to be done to save the companions model, which is still really worth it. »
Communities on strike
Beginning of July. Around twenty companions from the Halte Saint-Jean, Emmaüs community of Saint-André-lez-Lille, all in an irregular situation, are starting an indefinite strike. They accuse management of exploiting them, without giving them any prospect of regularization.
August 22. In Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk, around twenty workers in turn began a strike movement to initially protest against the change in the conditions of payment of their allowance. They also demand their regularization.
September 12. Around thirty companions and employees of Emmaüs Tourcoing also denounce a system of “modern slavery”. Emmaüs France mediation has since been set up.
September 30. Seven undocumented companions from Emmaüs Nieppe (North) join the movement to protest against their “inhumane” and “undignified” working conditions and demand their regularization.