“This is a big victory because there is finally an official, legal recognition of their status as rail workers,” says lawyer Clélie De Lesquen, who represented the 832 Moroccans at the French Prud'Hommes labour court.
About 2,000 Chibanis were recruited in the 1960s and '70s as rail workers, but as a public company, the SNCF could technically only hire French people. (This is still the case today, though it is extended to European citizens.)
But because the foreigners were useful, the company found a way around the rule, by hiring them as contract workers, often recruiting them directly from Morocco.
Antoine Math, a researcher with the French Institute for Economic and Social Research (Ires) and an activist for foreigners’ rights in France, explains that these contracts did not have the same conditions as full-time SNCF staff.
“These people, who sometimes worked 30 or 40 years, have been left with bad conditions: flat careers with no promotions; exclusion from the possibility of advancement or training; very low wages. And now, very bad pensions,” he said.
It took the men a while to realize they were the victims of discrimination.
Lawyer De Lesquen says it was only when they retired, “and they saw that their pensions were twice, if not three times less than permanent rail workers.”
Antoine Math adds that they had trouble rallying people to their cause.
“For a very long time, these rail workers were not very well defended, even by trade unions because it is always assumed to be a functionary in France, you have to be a French citizen. This is assumed to be normal,” he said.
Monday’s ruling awarded an average of 200,000 euros per person, which Math says will help the individuals, “who are very often very poor with low pensions.”
But considering the actual discrimination they suffered, it is probably not enough.
“When you look at the real prejudices: 30 to 40 years of lower wages, bad careers, and then 10, 20 or 30 years of low pensions, the lump sum… is not high at all,” he said.
The lawyers had initially asked for 400,000 to 450,000 euros per person, but they are satisfied with the result.
And though the SNCF still only hires French people or Europeans, the damages might make it and other public companies think twice about offering disadvantageous contracts to foreigners in the future.