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From the Field

Immigrant Men and Voluntary Work in a Swiss City

Across Europe, refugees and immigrants find themselves in uncertain civil and legal territory; precariousness infuses every aspect of their daily existence. In this paper, Agnes Aubry elucidates the multiple meanings of immigrants’ voluntary work in a soup kitchen, demonstrating the legal, moral, and sociological connections between labor and citizenship.

Saturday evening, in a warehouse near the heart of a city in Switzerland.

It’s 8 p.m. at the soup kitchen. Abdel [1], myself and 13 other volunteers are behind a counter, delivering food to more than 200 recipients—mostly immigrant men—who are in line. After waiting for more than 15 minutes, Jamel finally reaches the counter and gets the ticket that will give him access to a sandwich, a hot meal, some salad, and a dessert. Different volunteers serve each of these components, and Jamel thanks every one of them quietly. When he arrives at the dessert station where Abdel and I stand, he warmly says hi to Abdel, who gives him the biggest dessert in reach. As it is the first time we are volunteering side by side, Abdel and I begin to speak, and he explains how he became a volunteer here. Between saying “enjoy your meal” and “saha” (“health” in Arabic, used as “cheers”) to the recipients, he tells me: “There’s no way to find a job in Switzerland, so I come and work here.”

Many others have voiced similar opinions since my fieldwork began at this soup kitchen in May 2016. Indeed, Abdel is not the only one who told me he “works” in this charitable organization instead of finding a “real job.” He’s also not the only volunteer who occasionally comes to the soup kitchen as a recipient. Indeed, sometimes, Abdel is waiting his turn in the queue and Jamel stands on the other side of the counter, working as a volunteer. About half of the people volunteering every night experience economic and civic precariousness, either because they’re waiting for their asylum claim to be assessed or because they are undocumented. [2]

Jamel, Abdel and many other immigrant men work for free in this charitable organization for multiple and complex reasons. These reasons stem from the men’s disadvantaged position in the local labor market, which reflects their precarious civic status. Their discourses and practices shed light on a moral economy that regulates uncertain access to legal status, and encourages immigrants hoping to regularize to show that they might deserve it (Chauvin and Garces-Mascareñas 2014). Far from just being an act in good faith, their volunteering underlines constraints related to race and civic inequality.

Figure 1. The warehouse in which the soup kitchen is based

© Agnès Aubry.

Unpaid work as a substitute for paid work

The nonprofit soup kitchen has become more and more entwined with the city’s social policy over time, with local authorities funding around 80% of its activities. Its services are part of the city’s emergency welfare services, aiming to help vulnerable people regardless of name, situation or legal status. People who are not receiving any kind of public assistance, like undocumented immigrants, can thus benefit from it.

The soup kitchen hosts more than 200 people every night. It provides food, cell-phone chargers, and personal counseling. It can also refer recipients to other private and public providers (to sleep or wash their clothes, for example). The organization employs three workers per night—paid with the public money it receives—and needs 15 volunteers at their side to serve food to the recipients and tidy up the place at the end of the evening. Created in 1992, the soup kitchen used to do street outreach to drug users. Since then, it has steadily diversified its clients, catering mainly to immigrant men today. This evolution has led the organization to recruit more employees and especially more volunteers. Indeed, to be able to maintain its services, given its limited public support, the organization needs voluntary workers. In this regard, the free labor immigrant men put in can be seen as contributing to the operation of welfare services. Undeniably, for the organization, giving immigrant men the opportunity to become volunteers opens up a pool of people who are disposed to work for free on a regular basis:

It’s true that they [immigrant men] are regular volunteers, so it is important for us. Because they come regularly, there is always someone to count on. And if, for example, one day we lack volunteers, we can ask one of them, who comes to eat, and whose name is not written down on the formal volunteer list for the night, “Hey, can you give us a hand?”, and they are always available! (Laurence, 25, Swiss, soup kitchen employee.)

These men are always available because their status does not allow them to be paid for their work. [3] At the same time, the opportunity to “employ” undeclared immigrants or asylum seekers as unpaid volunteers can be seen as facilitating their integration into the “free labor market”:

I can’t find a job here, because North Africans don’t have the right to get a work permit here. So, right now, I’m doing nothing. So… I have to do something, I have to work. That’s why I often come here, you know? Before, I had an off-the-books job in a pizzeria, but… my employer didn’t want to get in trouble, so he fired me, without paying me. So if I can do anything here, I want to be helping. (Nordine, 31, Moroccan, soup kitchen volunteer.)

For these young immigrant men, unpaid work can then be a temporary substitute for paid work.

From Tunisia to Switzerland: looking for a place to work

Abdel was born in Tunisia in 1988. Before the Tunisian revolution, he worked for a US coffee chain that then closed. Hoping to find a job and to earn some money in a European country, he arrived in Switzerland in 2015, where he was registered as an asylum seeker. Waiting to be regularized, he has been struggling to find paid work since then. From time to time, he works as an undeclared mover or helps to unload crates at the market in town. As it remains difficult to find such work on a regular basis, he decided to volunteer four times a week at the soup kitchen. Abdel, like many other volunteers, first got to know the place as a recipient but quickly decided to join the “workers’ group”:

I first came to the soup kitchen to grab some bread and stuff. But then I saw people I knew. I knew some of the guys, and they were working! But like me, they were undocumented. So I ask them, “How did you do [it]?” And one of the guys who was working tells me, “I am volunteering, see, I’m helping people.” [Talking to me] You know, it improves a little bit. You’ve got an activity. Because we don’t have anything to do, right? […] Before coming [to] Switzerland, I was working sometimes 12 hours a day! And, suddenly: nothing. (Abdel, 29, Tunisian, soup kitchen volunteer.)

The way Abdel and others got involved underlines both “objective and subjective interactions between voluntary work and professional career” (Simonet 2012, p. 54) and reflects the social constraints immigrants are facing in Switzerland.

Gathering proof of good citizenship

The will to work that drives some immigrant men to volunteer also reflects a broader moral economy of civic worth, which pushes them to accumulate “official and semiofficial proofs of presence, certificates of reliable conduct and other formal emblems of good citizenship, whether in the name of civic honor, in the hope of lesser deportability, or [with a view to] future legalization” (Chauvin and Garces-Mascareñas 2012, pp. 241–243) [4]. Indeed, volunteering is a kind of performance that attests to civic worthiness. It enables employees of the organization to deliver “work certificates” to volunteers that prove their (good) integration and sense of civic duty:

Yes, it happens very often that we deliver work attestations. Either for a résumé, or typically for a residency permit request, things like that. It shows the person is committed, and that they are integrated. So, as for any work certificate, we write down what the person did: food service, food management, etc. And we put a description of how the person performs at work. (Louise, 27, Swiss, soup kitchen employee.)

One night after we worked together, Mourad, an undocumented immigrant from Algeria, told me he was trying to get a residency permit but needed to save some money to get a good lawyer. He then mentioned certificates of all kinds he had gathered over the past six years to have a “good file” and how the soup kitchen employees made “really, really good certificates.” While he was still waiting for his asylum claim to be assessed, Abdel asked soup kitchen employees for, in his words, “work certificates” every four months. He stopped doing so when his asylum request was denied and he slowly disengaged. [5]

It is difficult to assess whether gathering these “civic proofs” has any effect on the chances of getting a residency permit. Nevertheless, the desire to get such proofs shapes the conduct of volunteers who want to become regularized and find a job. Volunteering enables them to demonstrate “acceptable civic practices” (Palomares and Rabaud 2006, p. 148) and self-discipline. As Amin, undocumented and in Switzerland for seven years, explains:

Honestly, volunteering is 80% for the others, and 20% for me, so I can handle myself. […] I have seen a lot of people like me [facing economically and civically precarious situations] who strayed from the right path, you know? They did some… some bad stuff, you know? But me, thank God for my education, my religion, my culture, I knew how to handle myself. How to stay on the right track. (Amin, 42, Algerian, soup kitchen volunteer.)


This article illuminates what is at stake when immigrant men do voluntary work while they struggle to enter the labor market. As others have said, we need to rethink voluntary work—here, unpaid work in the nonprofit and semipublic sector—in order to highlight how it supports gender, class, and race inequalities (Taylor 2016, p. 52). In this example, voluntary work reflects a condition more than a vocation and is thus a form of underemployment (Krinsky and Simonet 2012, p. 16). Nevertheless, the volunteers we met are also making a strategic use of voluntary work. Looking at how they volunteer in order to work as well as to show that they are worthy of consideration to become full—or less partial—citizens thus underlines subtle forms of governmentality and individual coping strategies.


  • Chauvin, S. and Garces-Mascareñas, B. 2014. “Becoming Less Illegal: Deservingness Frames and Undocumented Migrant Incorporation”, Sociology Compass, vol. 8, no. 4, pp. 422–432.
  • Chauvin, S. and Garces-Mascareñas, B. 2012. “Beyond informal citizenship: the new moral economy of migrant illegality”, International Political Sociology, vol. 6, no. 3, pp. 241–259.
  • Krinsky, J. and Simonet, M. 2012. “Déni de travail : l’invisibilisation du travail aujourd’hui. Introduction”, Sociétés contemporaines, vol. 87, no. 3, pp. 5–23.
  • Palomares, É. and Rabaud, A. 2006. “Minoritaires et citoyens ? Faites vos preuves !”, L’Homme et la Société, vol. 2, nos. 160–161, pp. 135–160.
  • Simonet, M. 2010. Le Travail bénévole. Engagement citoyen ou travail gratuit ?, Paris : La Dispute, “Travail et salariat” collection.
  • Taylor, R. 2013. “Rethinking voluntary work: dimensions of class, gender and culture”, in M. Hély and M. Simonet (eds.), Le Travail associatif, Paris: Presses Universitaires de l’Ouest, pp. 51–63.

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To cite this article:

Agnès Aubry, “Immigrant Men and Voluntary Work in a Swiss City”, Metropolitics, 15 May 2018. URL :

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