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“The hardest part is not knowing”: families of undocumented migrants, deprived of work accidents in the building industry

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Within days of each other, two Malian undocumented workers living in Montreuil suffered serious accidents at work in April. Bary Keita, 27, succumbed to his injuries. Birima Konaté, 47, was seriously injured and is now recovering. In both cases, their employers tried to cover up the seriousness of the facts. Their families are clamoring to know the truth about these accidents.

Sitting on the sofa in her sister’s living room, who welcomes her during her convalescence, Birima Konaté grimaces in pain at the slightest movement. With his back propped up by a large velvet cushion and his legs covered with a pink blanket, this 47-year-old undocumented Malian recounts, in French and in Soninke, the accident that nearly cost him his life on April 22.

That morning, employees of the entrepreneur for whom he has been working for some time come, as usual, to look for him at the foot of his home in Montreal, along with a few other workers. In the site where they take them, Birima Konaté is tasked, with another worker, to shear scrap metal on the ground of the third floor of the building. But the operation weakens the concrete slab on which the Malian stands. At the end of the day, a piece of the ground collapses and Birima Konaté falls three floors. He falls into a sitting position on the ground floor and loses consciousness.

From that moment on, the worker ensures that he no longer remembers the unfolding of the events. “I just remember workers helping me walk a few meters to the car and an employee of my employer drove me to the hostel,” he said. Nobody warns the emergency services.

“The car dropped him off on the road”

On the day of the accident, like every day, around ten people were on the sidewalk in front of the foyer in Montreuil (Paris region) where Birima Konaté lives. Residents chat on plastic chairs next to small stalls selling fruit, cigarettes and peanuts. Malé Doucouré, a resident of the shelter, was among them and remembers when Birima was brought back after the accident.

Met at the beginning of May, in front of the foyer, he recounts what he witnessed on April 22: “The car dropped him off right there in front, on the road. Birima was sitting in the back. arrived he didn’t look well at all. We asked him what he had. He didn’t speak but he waved to us that he had back pain, so we brought a chair to sit it down. “

According to him, the driver of the car barely waited for Birima’s door to be closed to set off again with a bang.

It was only then that help was called by residents of the home. Samu arrives first, followed by firefighters and then police. Birima Konaté is rushed to Beaujon Hospital in Clichy. The Malian suffers from a serious fracture of the second lumbar vertebra. He was operated on the day after arriving at the hospital and narrowly escaped paralysis of his lower limbs.

Birima Konaté had a broken vertebra when she fell on a construction site. Credit: InfoMigrants
Birima Konaté had a broken vertebra when she fell on a construction site. Credit: InfoMigrants

A few days earlier, another Malian worker, also undocumented, had already been the victim of a dramatic accident at work. On April 17, 27-year-old Bary Keita fell while working on a construction site in Pantin, in Seine-Saint-Denis. After falling into a coma after the shock, the young man was also sent to Beaujon hospital in Clichy, where he was immediately operated on.

“The next morning at 7 a.m. I was called to tell me that his situation had deteriorated overnight and at 9 a.m. I was told that his brain was dead and that he would not wake up. more “, tells Boubou Konaté, cousin of the young Bary and his closest relative in France (it is about a different family from that of Birima Konaté), met several days after the accident, in the center of Montreuil.

Chain subcontractors

“The operating conditions [des sans-papiers] are absolutely deplorable “, denounces Gaël, a support of the collective of the sans-papiers of Montreuil which does not want his last name to be published.” Bary Keita was not wearing a helmet […] The bosses take advantage of the administrative situation of undocumented migrants. They do not have the choice to accept jobs while showing little regard for working conditions. “

Patrick Dupuits, member of the Solidaires union, responsible for defense before industrial tribunals, is well aware of the weaknesses of undocumented workers and the risks of occupational accidents they incur. For him, it is mainly the subcontracting system that puts undocumented migrants in danger and complicates their regularization through work.

“When there are calls for tenders, the big companies respond. They take their commission and hire a subcontractor who can, in turn, call a subcontractor by taking a commission. Each time, the mass of budget allocated for the site decreases. So, at the end, the last subcontractor takes undocumented migrants. It’s a vicious circle “, explains this former specialist educator, in the premises of the labor exchange of Montreuil. And without a valid employment contract, it is impossible for foreigners to obtain a residence permit in France.

Declaration to the CPAM

In theory, when an accident at work occurs, it is up to the employer to declare it to the Primary Health Insurance Fund (CPAM). The labor inspectorate can then have direct knowledge of accidents thanks to a database common to the CPAM. But, in the case of undocumented migrants, the bosses are particularly reluctant to declare an accident.

“There is certainly under-declaration, affirms a labor inspector from Ile-de-France who wished to remain anonymous. To declare the accident at work of a person whom you have hired illegally, is to attract the Be careful. But for us, undocumented or not, it is someone who worked, we do not look at the administrative situation. “

Depending on the seriousness of the facts, the declaration of an accident may lead to an investigation. “We can be seized by the police services but also by the prosecutor. We carry out a field investigation, if possible, we also hear the various protagonists, witnesses […] If there have been breaches of the Labor Code, we can identify them and pass them on to the prosecutor who will have the hand to prosecute the employer, “said the inspector.

Employers found guilty can face heavy fines and even jail time in the event of a serious accident.

“Fall from 5 meters”

An investigation was opened by the Pantin police and the labor inspectorate into the death of Bary Keita. The boss of the young Malian was heard by the police. But, when they told him his testimony, his cousin Boubou Konaté felt that the employer had played down the accident. “He told the police that Bary had fallen from some sort of scaffolding on wheels, about five feet high. They showed me the picture and that seems impossible to me,” he argues.

The Beaujon hospital operating report, which InfoMigrants was able to consult, gives a much more serious version of the facts. Bary Keita suffered a fractured skull with frontal depression and a fracture of the first cervical vertebra. The clinical summary of the surgeon who operated on him mentions a “fall of 5 meters”.

The boss of Birima Konaté was also heard by the police. But, questioned by the Malian worker’s family, he denies all responsibility for the accident and does not hesitate to offer Birima Konaté and her family “an arrangement” against his silence.

“Me too, I almost died”

But his family – like Bary Keita’s – do not intend to be silent. Everyone needs to know the exact circumstances in which their loved ones were seriously injured. Boubou Konaté says, “The hardest part is not knowing how it went”. Especially for him who also works in the building industry. He would like to be able to go to the construction site where Bary’s accident took place in Pantin, but the police refuse to tell him where he is.

On May 1, the workers' day, a tribute was paid to Bary Keita, in front of the town hall of Montreuil. Credit: InfoMigrants
On May 1, the workers’ day, a tribute was paid to Bary Keita, in front of the town hall of Montreuil. Credit: InfoMigrants

On May 1, Boubou Konaté took part in the tribute ceremony organized for his cousin in front of the town hall of Montreuil. In the audience gathered in front of a portrait of the young deceased and a banner “Bary Keita, undocumented dead at work”, there was also Semba, the best friend of the deceased Malian. This big fellow was shocked by the death of his friend and wants to know what happened too. “It’s mostly late afternoon that I miss him. That was always when we would sit down together for a chat on the way home from work,” he said.

On May 17, Bary’s body was returned to his loved ones and a collective prayer was organized at the Montreuil mosque to pay him a final tribute. A few days later, Boubou Konaté left for Mali to bring back the body of his cousin to his relatives.

He also wants to continue telling Bary’s story “for the rest of the undocumented”. A few weeks ago, in a workers’ home in Romainville, a man overheard him recounting his cousin’s accident. “He started to cry,” recalls Boubou. “I asked him why he was crying. He said, ‘The exact same thing happened to me and I too almost died.'”


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