Geneva: Operation Papyrus regularised thousands of undocumented workers

This blog post was written by Marianne Halle from the Centre de Contact Suisses-Immigrés Genève (CCSI).

Operation Papyrus was a temporary regularisation scheme in the city-canton of Geneva that ran from February 2017 to December 2018, and was aimed at granting residence status to a large number of undocumented people and families who had been living and working in Geneva for many years. By January 2020, 2390 persons had obtained a one or two-year, renewable residence permit thanks to the project. With several hundred cases still pending, the final tally of regularisations is likely to be close to 3000. People who were regularised in the framework of Operation Papyrus can now serenely build their future in Geneva, with the same rights and duties as their fellow residents in the canton. With a permit, they can get out of exploitative situations at work and find more stable jobs, start professional training, sign a lease in their name and thus avoid precarious subletting and prohibitive rents, or defend their rights when they are victims of a crime without fear of being reported and deported. Following the positive independent evaluation of the pilot project published late February, it is time to establish the procedure as a permanent mechanism in Geneva, and see how to roll it out in other cantons. Because we now know that the experience was a success, it also provides important food for thought and lessons learnt for other cities, regions and countries.

It was already possible for some undocumented migrants to regularise their status in Geneva, but Operation Papyrus was a truly novel experiment, a type of regularisation scheme that had never been tried before.

Firstly, Operation Papyrus was the result of more than a decade of sustained advocacy work in favour of regularisation. From the onset, state authorities worked hand in hand with local migrant support NGOs – who brought their detailed knowledge of the issue and expertise from the grassroots level to the table – and throughout the process there was constant dialogue, collaboration and a constructive state of mind between administrations, political actors and local NGOs.

Secondly, in practical terms, the project redefined the procedure for regularisation. Prior to this project, the procedure was both long and uncertain for migrants who decided to risk requesting a permit: the authorities had a large margin of appreciation and discretion as they examined claims, which made it difficult for candidates (as well as for support NGOs) to predict outcomes with any degree of certainty. In Operation Papyrus, the procedure was simplified and made more transparent. Candidates had to meet five criteria in order to be eligible: continuous residence in Geneva of 5 years for families with school-aged children, or 10 years for others; being employed; being financially independent (no debts and no dependence on welfare); obtaining a certified A2 level in French (oral only); and being able to produce a clean criminal record. Although each case was reviewed individually, the fact that the procedure was somewhat standardised and based solely on objective criteria made it easier to process a large number of cases in a limited amount of time. For example, there was a list of documents that candidates knew would be approved in order to prove their years of residence in Geneva, reducing uncertainty for them and making the process less arbitrary.

Finally, the project was not limited to the regularisation process itself, but was more holistic, including measures designed to address the issue of undeclared work and support regularised individuals and families. For example, there were also public campaigns against irregular work, ramped-up labour market controls (particularly in the domestic work sector), as well as integration measures to ensure that those regularised would not remain isolated, would be able to find more work in case they lost hours in the process, and would be able to find affordable French classes. One of the key aspects of this project was that candidates could file a claim even if their employer(s) did not support them. They were required to “self-declare” their current working conditions. This data was then used by the state – but only once the permit had been granted and the person was thus safer from retaliation – to conduct labour market controls and ensure that employers complied with all the legal requirements (minimum wage, social contributions and leave paid, etc.).

The large scale of this project implied significant demands on organisations such as the one I work for. Several organisations that are members of the Collectif de soutien aux sans-papiers de Genève (Collective in Support of Undocumented Migrants in Geneva) – among which CCSI where I work – were involved from the earliest stages in the development of this pilot project and played a key role in its implementation. Relying on a system of walk-in counselling services set up specifically for the operation, support organisations and trade unions provided more than 2,230 hours of professional, confidential and free information and advice to people directly affected, and organised and carried out twenty public information sessions. The associative and union partners submitted 1,264 cases (corresponding to 1,931 people) between 17 February 2017 and 31 December 2018, equivalent to two-thirds of the requests filed under the project.

Three intense years after the pilot project was officially launched, here are the main positive elements we take away from the operation:

  • The simplified procedure, based on objective and transparent criteria, allowed us to adequately advise the people who contacted us and to reassure them as to the outcome of their request. This element proved fundamental to building trust and guaranteeing legal certainty in the procedure. The very low number of refusals (less than 1% of requests filed by support organisations and trade unions) demonstrates that the procedure designed for this project was implemented successfully for all parties involved – the authorities received a majority of requests that fit the criteria, candidates knew what to expect when they file their claim, and support organisations had the tools to advise candidates on how to proceed.
  • The possibility to file an application without having to depend on the support of one’s employer made it possible to include those who most needed access to a residence status in order to defend their rights. Indeed, without this provision (which did not exist beforehand), those who worked in situations of exploitation would never have obtained their employer’s support (or would’ve been too afraid to ask), and would therefore not have been able to file a claim. It also avoided increasing dependence on employers, a situation which can lead to increased exploitation.
  • Operation Papyrus encouraged many people to approach support organisations and trade unions to discuss their situation. These people had sometimes never had contact with support networks before. This shed light on many situations of abuse – in the fields of work, housing, and other forms of exploitation. Even if some of them were unable to regularise their situation, they found support in the process of defending their rights.
  • During the operation, we saw an increase in awareness on the part of employers in the domestic work sector as to their obligations as employers. This better understanding of their role as employers, together with the steps taken with the help of trade unions to recover (at times substantial) unpaid wages, led to improved working conditions for many domestic workers, whether or not they were regularised. The effects of the operation on the domestic work sector are also apparent in the sharp increase in social insurances contributions. Indeed Cheque-service, a private company that deals with all the administrative aspects of having a domestic employee (payment of social insurance contributions, establishing salary certificates, etc.) saw a 44% payroll increase and a CHF 5.7 million increase in social contributions between 2016 and 2019. The true increase is likely to be higher, as Cheque-service is only one of the ways employers can declare their domestic workers in Geneva.
  • Concerns often voiced around potential negative consequences of implementing a large-scale regularisation project did not materialise. The two main fears raised by opponents to this project were that the operation would lead to an influx of new arrivals of undocumented workers, and that some of the regularised migrants would turn to welfare or social benefits and weigh heavily on the state’s finances. Both of these fears turned out to be unfounded, as the independent report on the operation clearly shows. The evaluation found that there has been no increase in arrivals of undocumented workers, and labour market controls in the domestic work sector were key to ensuring that regularisation would not lead to a high proportion of workers leaving or being laid off from their jobs, and thus being replaced by other – even more precarious – undocumented migrants. Controls in the domestic work sector helped protect workers’ rights (decent salaries, paid leave, declaration to social insurances, etc.), and thus provided incentives for regularised workers to remain in those jobs. As for employers, knowing that controls were being implemented discouraged them from firing their regularised employees and replacing them with undocumented workers who could be more easily exploited. Some regularised workers did lose their jobs due to their regularisation, but the additional support measures enabled some of them to find alternative employment.

The main difficulties we encountered were linked to the fact that some undocumented people, in spite of being very well integrated and having lived in Geneva for a long time, were unable to regularise their situation in the framework of this operation. Indeed, the criteria were strict, and the legal basis (art. 30 of the Law of foreigners) for the regularisation excluded migrants who had claimed asylum in the past. Therefore, we had to advise many people not to file a request. Disappointed, some of them turned to private agents or other intermediaries who shamelessly exploited this despair. Some of these private agents filed – often for a very high price – applications for people who did not meet the criteria, thus exposing them to the risk of deportation.

Overall, Operation Papyrus can be considered to be a success, a positive experience that demonstrates it is possible to implement a simple and fair regularisation policy which brings positive effects to the entire community. This project also made it possible to put an end to a certain hypocrisy, and to acknowledge the presence and the contribution of the undocumented population living and working in Geneva. It also demonstrated how a carefully planned regularisation and accompanying measures, including controls of working conditions, can serve to regulate and formalise employment is sectors such as domestic work with high levels of undeclared work.

Maintaining such a procedure as a permanent mechanism would allow us to take into account of the ongoing reality of undocumented migrant workers – particularly domestic workers – in Geneva and allow others to regularise their situation. We hope that the experience in Geneva gives other cantons and countries confidence to implement similar projects, so that undocumented workers there can also access residence status. We hope that efforts to promote decent and declared work across Europe, such as the #EUFairWork campaign, can also take inspiration from the project.

For support organisations and trade unions in Geneva, the work goes on. As we offer the experience we have gathered with this novel project to other organisations and regions, we will continue to defend the rights and improve the living and working conditions of all undocumented people who turn to our organisations, whether they have a chance to regularise their situation or not.

Image credits: @Robert Stokoe | Pexels