Europe needs to promote a climate of zero tolerance
Labour exploitation is not an isolated phenomena. Despite its pervasivness, it has received little attention from researchers. The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights has recently investigated labour exploitation, from the perspective of experts in the field and examined areas of law that to date have not been utilised sufficiently. Michael O’Flaherty, Director, EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) explains why Europe has to promote a climate of zero tolerance towards labour exploitation
As the drownings in the Mediterranean continue and new walls – both physical and metaphorical – go up around Europe for the first time since the end of the Cold War, migration is a word set to remain on everybody’s lips in 2016. But migration is far broader an issue than one of border control. In order to meet the challenges we are facing in the EU, we need a more holistic approach to human rights protection that accompanies migrants from arrival through to their full participation in democratic society.
Labour exploitation is one such aspect of migration that does not generally receive much attention, either from researchers or policy makers. The EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) recently investigated severe forms of labour exploitation in the EU, defined as forms of labour exploitation that are criminal under the legislation of the EU Member State where the exploitation occurs. The results are available in the report Severe labour exploitation: workers moving within or into the European Union.
Although the phenomenon of severe labour exploitation is widespread, it often remains invisible to the public: consumers remain blithely unaware that the wine they drink, the potatoes they eat, the shirts they wear or the services they receive in hotels or restaurants may well be the product of exploitation.
One example of this was a case in Greece where 119 migrants from Bangladesh worked on a strawberry farm in inhumane conditions. They had been promised payment of €22 a day, but when the workers asked for their wages, the three supervisors opened fire on them. The owner of the enterprise was acquitted unanimously of charges of serious assault and labour trafficking. As a result, the verdict cannot be appealed by prosecutors.
This is just one of the 217 case studies collected by FRA in the course of its research. These studies, alongside in-depth interviews with 616 professionals working in the area, led us to conclude that severe labour exploitation is an endemic problem that we must take urgent action to end.
FRA spoke to a range of professionals including labour inspectors, victim support staff and the police. One in five of them said they came across cases of severe labour exploitation at least twice a week. Such exploitation is particularly rife in several sectors, ranging from agriculture through domestic work and manufacturing to the entertainment industry. We found that the biggest risk factors for becoming a victim of labour exploitation include lack of inspections, targeted monitoring, extreme poverty, racial backgrounds and enforced isolations in which many exploited workers live.
The situation of exploitation itself often makes it difficult for victims to report their experiences. Very often, forceful migration, a lack of knowledge of workers’ rights and support services and a fear of retaliation against themselves or their families are the main reasons behind reduced reportage of labour exploitation.
Why do we need to take action on this?
Firstly because it is breaking the law: While certain forms of labour exploitation are covered by EU criminal legislation, Article 5 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU prohibits slavery and forced labour, and Article 31 stipulates that all workers have the right to “fair and just” working conditions.
Secondly, because labour exploitation not just harm the victims themselves, but also undermines labour standards in a more broader sense. Allowing severe labour exploitation to spread across entire swathes of the economy will not only tolerate serious violations of fundamental rights, but in the long run, also have a negative impact on the labour standards of all workers.
Last but not least, faie integration into the labour market and the prospect of fair work for fair pay as well as a real chance of career advancement is crucial if the EU is to incorporate the newly arrived refugees and other migrants into the European society.
What action should we take?
To begin with, EU member states should ensure that a comprehensive and well-resourced system of inspections of working conditions is in place. Unfortunately, some EU countries have recently gone in the opposite direction and cut resources for labour inspectorates. In addition, labour inspectors and police officers should be trained to deal with cases of severe labour exploitation.
Close links should also be established between the police, public prosecutors and monitoring authorities such as labour inspectorates. Wherever possible, we should create specialist police units that have experience in handling trafficking, in order to respond to migrants more effectively.
Consumers can and should be assured when goods or services are not products of severe labour exploitation – a “fair work” label, so to speak. This could be complemented by a public register of employers and recruiters convicted of labour exploitation.
As one employers’ association representative FRA interviewed said:
“By making honest employment practices visible in the market you provide added value … If you want to get at someone you can give them a fine, which helps. But it helps much more if they cannot sell their product any more.”
While legislation to protect workers from labour exploitation does exist at national and EU level, implementation often lags behind.
Today, the shocking photos and film footage of people who have escaped Syria, Iraq or Eritrea — are sure to make the migrants ever so vulnerable. Potential exploiters are highly likely to think that those who have successfully reached Europe’s shores should be grateful for surviving and not complain about the conditions they face at work.
As the EU and its member states seek appropriate policies to ensure respect for the fundamental rights of the refugees and other migrants arriving on its soil, the issue of severe labour exploitation continues to grow. Greater efforts must be made to monitor the situation more effectively, sanction perpetrators, and above all, promote a climate of zero tolerance for exploitation.