French rail operator found guilty of discrimination against Moroccan workers

Friday 18/09/2015
Careers have been deliberately curtailed

PARIS - An industrial court on Monday found French rail operator SNCF guilty of discriminating against some 800 Moroccan railway workers, and ordered it to pay roughly 150 million euros ($170 million) in damages.

Sent to France in the 1970s from freshly independent Morocco to make up for a lack of manpower at the SNCF, the workers claimed they suffered decades of deliberate career prejudice.

Young, strong, and "available to work at Christmas", as one railway worker Abdelghani Azhari put it, the immigrants toiled away but their careers went nowhere.

The Moroccans were hired as private contractors and denied the status of "railway worker" which comes with benefits in terms of job security, retirement and working hours.

That coveted status was reserved for European citizens and young recruits.

Even those who later received French nationality and were awarded a permanent contract complained their careers had been deliberately curtailed.

According to the ruling by the industrial court, which specialises in workplace conflicts, the SNCF was found guilty of "discrimination in the execution of work contracts" and "in the rights to retirement."

Each of the workers was awarded between 150,000 euros and 230,000 euros, said Abdelkader Bendali, a Moroccan teacher who helped them in their legal fight.

A total of 832 railway workers were involved in the group action and almost all were awarded damages. Many have waited a decade for the outcome and the ruling was met with an outpouring of emotion.

Ahmed Katim, who was hired as a contractor in 1972, burst into tears, describing the ruling as "restoring dignity to Moroccans, which is hugely satisfying."

Mohamed Ben Ali, 65, who is still working, said he finally feels he is "100 percent a railway worker. It is a big thing, they recognise the distinction that the SNCF made between us and the French."

Abdelhadi Fedfane, 66, who was hired as a contractor in 1974, retired in 2010 "broken from head to toe" due to decades toiling outside, on the tracks, repairing carriages.

"We trained the youngsters, but we remained mere assistants. It broke our morale," he said.

Fedfane said he was delighted with the ruling even if "it won't repair my health."

The mass of files meant each plaintiff would be individually informed of their result from October 23, and the rail company will have a month to appeal.

"We are giving ourselves time to analyse the ruling before appealing," an SNCF spokesman said.

The rail operator said it had merely "applied the law" in the case of the Moroccan contractors.

"Even today the legal provisions prevent the hiring of non-EU citizens."