Short, balding but energetic, a middle-aged Sri Lankan stands behind the small counter of Ambal Alimentation Générale, a grocery store in the Indian quarter of Paris that sells imported South Asian foods and spices, and greets each customer as though they have known each other for years. Vikna has come a long way since his arrival in France in 1992. Like many other South Asian migrants, he began by working his way up through the restaurants of Paris. In his case, Vikna spent eight years toiling through kitchens. “Often, you start by working in the restaurant kitchens, by helping the chef,” he says. “After some time, when you become good at your job, you get to cook.”
A quick peek into the restaurants of Paris reveals that a sizeable number of the kitchen workers are not actually French. Abhijit Patel, 22, an art student from India who has been living in the 14th arrondissement for three years says of his neighborhood: “There are a lot of cooking staff in restaurants who are actually of South Asian origins. They work in all kinds of restaurants, not just Indian ones. In my area alone there are two pizzerias whose chefs are definitely from South Asia.”
A 2008 census conducted by the National Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies reported that Asians made up 14.1 percent of the foreign population, or 507,137 people, in metropolitan France, including 28,595 Sri Lankans, 14,865 Pakistanis, 13,475 Indians and 3,620 Bangladeshis. But among the many organizations contacted for the purposes of this article, neither the restaurant unions (UMIH, SNARR), nor the migrant help groups (AEFTI, GISTI) were able to give a precise figure for the proportion of this population that works in the food industry. Mario Richard, president of the AEFTI (Association pour l’enseignement et la formation des travailleurs immigrés et de leurs familles), is very cautious about giving a number, even though the few South Asian migrants the AEFTI has coached so far all work in the food industry.
A possible explanation is that many migrants from the Indian sub-continent are potentially undocumented. Most of them came after 1973, when France stopped bringing migrant workers over and started harshening immigration policies. Even asylum seekers, which made up a major part of the Sri Lankan community, are finding it harder to migrate. French Interior Minister Claude Guéant wants to add Bangladesh to the OFPRA’s (Office de Protection des Réfugiés et Apatrides) list of “safe” countries, making it nearly impossible to obtain asylum. The Préfecture de Police in Paris did not respond for comment in time for this article to provide information about undocumented South Asian migrants. “There are very few undocumented migrants who come to see us,” says Mr. Richard, but he specifies that “at the AEFTI, we cannot offer formations for undocumented migrants because we work with the French State. We give them advice and redirect them to other organizations.”
A 2009 report on South Asian migrants for the Ministry of Immigration states that “the weight of illegal immigration, difficult to take into account in official statistics, is probably what contributes the most” to discrepancies between estimates. But it also lists the food industry as one of three main sectors for migrants in France, the others being clothing and construction.
“The food industry is interesting because it serves as a socio-economic space that absorbs new migrants, who arrive without any documents or experience and cut their teeth in this sector. It is also a space for ethnic entrepreneurism, with people who are ascending socially,” says Christine Moliner, a doctoral student at the India and Asia Study Center at the EHESS (School for Advanced Studies in the Social Sciences) and the specialist behind the 2009 report.
“It’s very common to work in restaurants,” says Vikna. “It’s good work, it pays well, and the longer you work for the same boss, the more likely you will get promoted. I think about 90 per cent of us who come here enter the food industry and work in restaurants. There are always jobs in the kitchens.”
Vikna says the demand for such jobs is so high that South Asian migrants frequently go beyond restaurants serving typical South Asian cuisine. “It doesn’t matter what type of food it is. Indian, French, Italian… We learn to cook everything. In my area, you will see mostly Indian restaurants, but a lot of people work in European ones too,” he says.
An Invisible Community
Despite this presence in the dining rooms and behind the stoves in restaurants and cafés around the capital, South Asian migrants are not as visible a community as other immigrant groups from Southern Europe or North Africa. Part of the explanation is size. The 143,618 people of the Tunisian community outweigh the Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankan communities combined. But numbers alone do not account for this lack of visibility. The language barrier is one of the main problems. A migrant from the Sylhet divison in Bangladesh does not share the same colonial, and thus linguistic, background with a francophone Tunisian.
“Despite the welcoming and integration contract that makes a linguistic evaluation mandatory, with French courses for migrants, the level is still very, very low,” says Ms. Moliner. “The language barrier is still major and it isn’t getting any better because we realize that when the community has reached a certain size, with sufficient internal services, people can spare themselves the need for French.”
But the opposite can sometimes be true, as the language gap pushes migrants to learn, especially in the food industry where they work with French clients or owners on a variety of menus. Working in a European restaurant is one of the fastest ways to pick up the language, says Vikna. Indeed, his French is broken but confident, the result of no formal language instruction but many years of work experience.
Also, undocumented workers in the food industry are under the radar, and remain reluctant to speak openly about their situations. Most have come for economic reasons and are poorly qualified workers, since highly skilled migrants are put off by the language barrier and complex family reunion procedures, says Ms. Moliner. Poor migrants don’t have the choice. “They come to France because they can’t go elsewhere. It’s a substitute solution,” she says. “This immigration started in the 1970s and 1980s because the United Kingdom closed its doors.”
For some, new doors are opening in France. According to Mr. Richard, South Asian migrants have a strong commercial tradition. “Starting a business is a strong way to integrate,” he says. Vikna says he met and married his wife here and has three children, two of whom have gone to university, one majoring in physics and the second in economics. He still has some family left in Sri Lanka and regularly sends them a small amount of money. Working the kitchens of Paris has brought him far, but Vikna says not everybody is cut out for the experience. “It gets really hot and tiring in the kitchens. After eight years, I decided I wanted to try something else.”