By Miriam Quarticelli
Despite common (mis-)conceptions, forced labor is one of the most urgent issues affecting Europe in recent years. Although forced labor is often seen as a problem in developing countries, the International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that 880,000 women, men and children are victims of forced labor in the European Union. In 2012, an outrageous number of 20.9 million women, men and children were trapped in jobs into which they were coerced or deceived, meaning that around three out of every 1,000 persons worldwide are victims of forced labor, according to the ILO.
THE SITUATION IN EUROPE
Forced labor is defined by the ILO as workers who are “coerced to work through the use of violence or intimidation, or by more subtle means such as accumulated debt, retention of identity papers or threats of denunciation to immigration authorities.” Fifty-eight percent of victims of forced labor in the EU are women, according to the ILO. Data also shows that domestic work, agriculture, manufacturing, construction, hospitality, cleaning, food manufacturing and processing and textiles and clothing are the main sectors employing victims of forced labor. Often, forced labor is accompanied by other forms of labor abuse and exploitation. Victims are coerced or forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions. They face physical, sexual and psychological abuse in the workplace and are unable to leave due to threats of violence, confinement, outstanding debt or other consequences. For example, a report by Human Rights Watch documented how some migrant domestic workers in the United Kingdom were coerced to work through low payments, physical and psychological abuse and the withholding of travel documents such as passports. “In London they just locked me at home … I ate after they finished, the leftovers … When I ran away I was sleeping in the park because I didn’t know anybody here … I felt like a beggar,” one domestic worker told HRW.
In Europe, forced labor is also associated with human trafficking and illegal cross-border migration, as irregular migrants are often vulnerable to forced labor. In some instances, migrants may agree to be trafficked, placing their trust in worker recruitment agencies, only to find themselves with no way to return home and forced to work in sub-standard conditions or in a position they had not agreed to. Migrants from inside the EU (Bulgaria, Poland and Romania) and from outside the EU (China, Morocco and Turkey) are often affected. However, migrants are not the only source of forced labor.
In fact, a report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation on forced labor in nine European countries documented that many people affected by forced labor are EU citizens. Despite this, EU governments continue to view and tackle forced labor as an immigration, human trafficking and border-control issue. European governments focus mostly on immigration regulation rather than ensuring protections in the workplace because it is easier to believe that tougher border controls will lead to a decrease in forced labor. This narrow conception of how to fight forced labor overlooks how many individuals may be trapped in conditions of forced labor within their own countries or in countries where they are present legally.
LEGAL OBLIGATIONS OF EUROPEAN COUNTRIES
At the international level, Article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) establishes that “no one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) prohibit slavery, servitude and forced labor, and guarantees the freedom of movement and the right to determine where to work. This means that all workers have the right to work in favorable conditions which include fair wages, safe and healthy working conditions, rest, reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.
Furthermore, laws created within the framework of the ILO are of crucial importance, including the Forced Labour Convention of 1930 and the Domestic Workers Convention of 2011, which establishes the rights of domestic workers, including standards for minimum age of employment, protection against abuses and violence, adequate salary and working conditions. At the European level, Article 5 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights prohibits slavery and forced labor. These treaties place an obligation on states to protect people from rights violations. In fact, according to Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), member states must guarantee the right to move freely within the EU and to be protected from discrimination on the ground of their nationality in labor situations. Moreover, Article 15 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights allows every EU citizen the right to seek employment and to work in any EU Member State without being exploited.
ENSURING FREEDOM AND RIGHTS
Despite international laws and regulations seeking to eliminate forced labor, many labor rights violations still exist in Europe and most responses to forced labor are ad hoc rather than systematic. For example, some non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have set up programs to assist victims of forced labor who are also migrants or undocumented workers. While this is beneficial for irregular migrants, such initiatives are less likely to reach and aid EU migrants or citizens who have experienced forced labor. Moreover, once a case of forced labor is identified, there is a high burden of proof for legal action. With this in mind, the practice of pursuing several legal routes at the same time (e.g. employment and criminal cases) may offer the best option for those who have experienced forced labor.
To better prevent forced labor, EU states should work to raise awareness about the indicators of forced labor within government agencies, labor inspectors and civil society. They should also reinforce labor market regulations and associate these regulations with inspection and enforcement powers. Furthermore, it is essential to combat human trafficking and to implement stronger immigration laws to protect migrants who are vulnerable to forced labor. Finally, EU states should sign onto a legally-binding treaty on forced labor, which should include updated standards on preventing forced labor and compensating victims.
As the EU investigates reports of slave labor on Thai fishing vessels that supply seafood in European markets and considers a ban of imports produced by forced labor, the EU should not forget that these same types of violations are occurring within its own borders. Most recently, human rights groups and news organizations have documented forced labor in Poland, Malta and Greece. The EU must practice what is preaches and set a strong example for the elimination of forced labor and in achieving justice for victims of these abuses.
Miriam Quarticelli is a Staff Writer for Rights Wire.
The views expressed in this post remain those of the individual author and are not reflective of the official position of the Leitner Center for International Law and Justice, Fordham Law School, Fordham University or any other organization.
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