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From the Field

Open-Air Auto Shops: Subsistence Jobs in Working-Class Neighborhoods

The informal activities of street mechanics observed by Collectif Rosa Bonheur in northern France attest to a much larger subsistence economy at the margins of employment. According to this research collective, the spatial anchoring of these activities, on the borderline of informality, invites us to consider spaces that are often perceived as peripheral and relegated as “working-class centralities.”

In the vicinity of houses, in garages adjacent to dwellings, on sidewalks, in public squares or parking lots, in backyards, and in close proximity to numerous sheds, and warehouses, the signs of activity are clear to see if you know what to look for: cars mounted on jacks, toolboxes, oil stains, dirty rags… Mechanics—stooped under hoods or on their backs under car chassis—are setting up shop outdoors and offering their services to a diversified clientele, from the working and middle classes of the northern French city of Roubaix and the wider Lille metro area more generally. [1] In the course of the observations we made in Roubaix from 2011 onward, [2] we quite quickly understood that car repair was a “local sport” that Habib, [3] a dealer in an official repair workshop, in his thirties, described in these terms:

Here, you can always find someone in the family who knows how to do it. It’s true that people’s relationship with cars is incredible here. You can test it, lift the hood in the street and, within five minutes, I’m sure a guy will come and look at the engine with you, he’ll give you a hand. Here, people like to take their engines apart.

In Roubaix, the unemployment rate stands at 30%, and the rate of economic inactivity is similar (excluding retirees). We wanted to know what was behind these figures, which do not really tell us what people are actually doing to support themselves. Gradually, we discovered a city of poor workers—rather than “people on welfare”—who have put in place real strategies to organize their daily lives. These workers were expelled from formal labor markets, but have not remained inactive. Some produce health resources and care for the elderly, children and the sick, or work to help other people gain access to rights and services, by assisting them with their “papers” (Siblot 2006), or access to affordable consumer goods. Others are involved in recycling and fabricating useful items that can be resold. Others still are involved in renovating a very run-down, insalubrious building. Finally, some residents manage to bring some money home by working as street mechanics.

The elusive line between formal and informal work

Street car repair is on the borderline between formal and informal work. Even when mechanics have a legal, registered workshop, this doesn’t stop them also carrying out undeclared repair work. Conversely, some mechanics work on the street but have applied for self-employed microbusiness (autoentrepreneur) status, because they don’t have the resources to open a workshop that is “up to code.” Skills are partly learned on the street: from an early age, from one person to another, they are passed on through the practice of repairing, tinkering, and tuning. The most highly skilled mechanics are known for their dexterity and the uninitiated can gradually incorporate a culture of doing; this environment makes auto repair a professional possibility for young working-class men who leave formal education early [4] and many of whom are victims of racist prejudices on the formal labor market. Along with catering and construction, auto repair is one of the only activities that offers more opportunities than the few jobs available in Roubaix companies, typically as maintenance or security personnel, which are low-skilled and offer little in the way of workers’ rights and protections. Some decide to turn car repair into a money-spinner, by offering their services to relatives or acquaintances interested in getting their vehicles repaired at a good price. To do this, they typically set up shop in a private garage or instead rent a shed or warehouse that they fit out according to the resources available to them. Car repair can also take the form of a semi-leisure activity carried out in parallel with other professional activities, as “side work” (Weber 1989), which may subsequently become their main source of income following a redundancy or in order to top up an insufficient old-age pension.

These phenomena are not specific to the city of Roubaix. Other “open-air auto shops” exist in France—for example, in working-class suburbs of Paris such as Aubervilliers (Giordano 2016), Saint-Denis (Jacquot and Morelle 2018) and Vitry-sur-Seine [5]—as well as in Brussels in Belgium (Rosenfeld 2013) and on the streets of Algiers (Algeria) and Tangier (Morocco), according to information provided by our respondents. Automotive mechanics is the heart of a real economic system in Roubaix, where mainly informal work is carried out, even if declared work is not completely absent: a third of the companies created in Roubaix in 2014 had some sort of link with cars (repairs and trade), compared to less than one in five companies at national level in France. [6] Many mechanics also offer their used-vehicle repair and sales services on specialized websites. These sites (such as resemble labor and consumer-goods markets that are physically based in residential buildings (houses, garages, courtyards) and public spaces (squares, parking lots, abandoned spaces, sidewalks, streets with little traffic) that are suitable for parking cars awaiting repair or resale.

Today, workers have difficulty accessing institutional forms of employment—which may be described as formal (Desmarez 2016): in Roubaix and at the national level, precarity is spreading. In 2015, short-term contracts represented 84% of all non-temporary hires, while permanent contracts made up only 7% of declared hires. [7] The economic inactivity and unemployment rates mentioned above explain why the share of income from employment in households’ disposable income in Roubaix is significantly lower than the national average (65.3% compared with 73.4%) and the proportion of income made up of social benefits is significantly higher (19.8% compared with 5%). [8] But while formal working-class employment has declined sharply since the dismantling of the local textile industry, other forms of work have been created on the margins of wage labor, independence and unemployment (Demazière 2006; La Nouvelle Revue du travail 2014). These informal channels are not disconnected from formality, and informal income is often combined with the receipt of forms of direct or deferred pay, insurance and social assistance, carried by state systems.

After years of “struggling” following the closure, in 2004, of the factory where he worked, Laurent decided to change his life and set up his own business down the street: “Using the networks built up at the factory, I started to offer my services.” Patrick, a mechanic by training, had been repairing cars “in front of his mother’s house” for 10 years, first in a strictly informal way and then officially “declared” at his home. Joseph, a retired former mechanic, works in a storage unit hidden from prying eyes “to help his daughter who is unemployed, has children, and is struggling” (Collectif Rosa Bonheur 2017a). These examples attest to the development and transmission of a technical culture among men from the industrial working classes and mainly of North African origin, but also provide confirmation of principles of mutual aid and solidarity, and the production of local hierarchies based on reputation. Auto repair is not only built on purely economic approaches, but also constitutes a mode of exchange based on the mastery of technical and manual skills, which offers professional prospects to some young people in the working classes. It is also an opportunity to activate networks of sociability and define living spaces, spaces for socialization, and spaces for the production of new skills. It is part of a working-class culture that goes beyond and challenges negative media representations and alarmist political discourse on supposed deviant lifestyles in working-class neighborhoods—a label used in particular to refer to spaces whose history is marked by postcolonial immigration (Berthaut 2013). It is by challenging such representations and discourse that positive identities can be formed in these spaces.

Working as a mechanic means positioning yourself in a competitive hierarchical market based on reputation, neighborhood sociability and/or exteriority to the neighborhood, and on arrangements with the police or police control. Like other subsistence labor activities, auto repair mobilizes resources that are unevenly distributed among the working classes, including social capital. Moreover, this activity is carried out at the cost of a racial division of labor, which regulates the distribution of jobs and status: the likelihood of mechanics being of North African origin increases as the level of formality of this work—and consequently also the levels of income, stability and social rights associated with it—decreases.

The city cracks down on street repairs

In spring 2018, a city bylaw banned all car repair activities on the street on the grounds of abusive and dirty occupation of public space and undeclared employment status. The fines, amounting to 38 euros, or even more than 100 euros in the event of the deposit of materials, are announced as a sanction that men who make a living from on-street car repair will not be able to pay. It is thus often from a repressive and punitive angle that the political and administrative authorities supervise the work that underlies the working-class and subsistence economies, calling it, depending on the interpretation framework used, “wheeler-dealing,” “resourcefulness” and “getting by.” [9] These various readings prohibit the recognition of actors in the working-class economies as workers exercising a trade under very unfavorable conditions that could be improved: by authorising abandoned spaces for the practice of auto repair, by making qualifying training available to street mechanics, etc. This gulf between municipal politics and day-to-day working-class life is summed up well by one mechanic, Mohamed, when asked by a journalist what he thinks of this bylaw: “These fines will not solve the problem. Something else needs to be done in Roubaix. The town hall doesn’t get it at all.” [10] It should be noted that standards are not applied with the same intensity, depending on one’s social class, when it comes to declaring taxes and dealing with tax circumventions (Spire 2012). Locally, the town hall’s action aims to normalize the uses of the city and discipline the social body. Thus, the pre‑eminent role granted to police officers in regulating working-class employment is justified by an operation of inferiorization of the working classes which consists in depriving them of the autonomy of decision as to the work to be done and the criteria for its proper evaluation, the skills necessary for the performance of this work, and the qualifications resulting from the performance of this work.

This is probably because, from the metropolitan, regional and national spaces of political decision-making, Roubaix is perceived as a poor, inactive, unemployed city (Collectif Degeyter 2017). These categories carry with them stigmatizing statuses and thus deny the ability to act. However, on-street car repair is the expression of a larger working-class economy, oriented towards the subsistence of families on the margins of employment. The failures of the social state have had to be compensated by the development of an economic space produced at the initiative of local populations, based on the bonds of reciprocity that individuals are able to forge, in which members of the working classes are engaged in jobs that are not always paid, but which are nevertheless rich in resources. This “subsistence work” (Mies 1988; Collectif Rosa Bonheur 2017b) is carried out daily by men and women from the working classes at the margins of the formal labor market. In addition to open-air garages, we have seen an abundance of small, modest-looking shops, discount food stores in sheds, warehouses or garages, “small businesses” based in houses, visible via posters taped to windows, offering cleaning and childcare services, home improvements, sewing, hairdressing, animal care, or other posters offering items for sale at low prices, sometimes made in the home. Consuming at the lowest cost, making things oneself, repairing things, and recycling are other essential dimensions of subsistence work, often invisible and invisiblized – yet omnipresent – both in everyday life and in urban areas. [11]

Roubaix: a “working-class centrality”

In the course of our research, we understood that people who are said to “do nothing” (unemployed, inactive, on welfare, etc.) actually work hard, in conditions they have not chosen and for levels of income that still keep them in a chronic state of material deprivation. We also understood that this work transforms the physical nature of the city, that it produces a working-class city that is full of resources for its inhabitants: self-renovation of housing, multiple informal and formal activities, sometimes at home, mutual aid systems around food, health, education and access to rights from associations and social centers. This production of space by the working classes is generally denied by local public authorities, because it contrasts with the urban and social norms of the dominant classes that design and plan urban spaces (Clerval 2011; Fijalkow and Lévy-Vroelant 2016; Chabrol et al. 2016). Roubaix is thus the subject of urban-renewal policies that seek to rehabilitate and normalize housing in order to attract new populations from the middle classes (Miot 2012). However, the spatial inscription of the activities mentioned above and those observed in our other field studies gives this space a “working-class centrality” (Collectif Rosa Bonheur 2016). For the working classes who live there, residential space is a decisive factor. The city thus occupies a central position through the provision of affordable and accessible housing that allows working-class people to find places to live; through the economic activities that residents seek to develop there; and through exchanges and mutual assistance based on family, neighborhood or community ties. This is not a case, however, of putting forward an enchanted vision of working-class centrality. The space of the working classes is a fragmented space, criss-crossed by multiple social relations, but it is in these spaces that social trajectories of resistance to the downward mobility of families and generations play out.


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To cite this article:

Collectif Rosa Bonheur & translated by Oliver Waine, “Open-Air Auto Shops: Subsistence Jobs in Working-Class Neighborhoods”, Metropolitics, 25 October 2019. URL :

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