Forced labour and trafficking in Europe: how people are trapped in, live through and come out

Forced labour and trafficking in Europe: how people are trapped in, live through and come out

Forced labour and trafficking in Europe: how people are trapped in, live through and come out

Forced labour in Europe today is largely a result of human trafficking and irregular migration. The ILO estimates that out of 360,000 forced labour victims in industrialised countries (including Western Europe), 270,000 were trafficked (ILO 2005a). Media images of irregular migrants trying to enter the “fortress Europe” – from Albania to Italy or from Morocco to Spain – have spurred debate and concern over the protection of state borders. Similarly, trafficking of women for the purpose of sexual exploitation and increasingly also trafficking of persons for labour exploitation has attracted a high degree of attention from the media, civil society groups and governments alike. While the protection of state borders against irregular migration has dominated European policy agendas in the past, the actual employment situation of irregular migrants is now moving gradually into the centre of the debate. The present paper seeks to contribute to this policy development by shedding light on forced labour practices as a result of human trafficking.

The distinction between smuggling and trafficking, now firmly anchored in international law, has clarified that irregular migration processes can involve violation of human rights as much as they are a violation of state borders. Those who have suffered human rights violations are seen as trafficked victims and should be afforded protection measures. So far, most of the identified victims of human trafficking have been migrant women who were exploited in Europe’s sex industry. The fact that migrants – women, men and children – are also trafficked into other economic sectors for the purpose of labour exploitation has received less attention from researchers, law enforcement agencies and organisations involved in the fight against trafficking in human beings.

This paper will argue against the common perception that “women are trafficked while men are smuggled”. Furthermore, it will shift the focus away from organised crime and instead look at labour market dynamics. It cannot be denied that irregular migration is big business for smuggling and trafficking networks. The police have dismantled some of these networks over recent years, which has brought to light a high degree of sophistication and violence. Many exploitative practices, however, are less spectacular and less organised. They take place in mainstream economic sectors, such as agriculture, construction or the service industry where there is a high demand for cheap and exploitable labour. Most migrant workers are not forced at gunpoint to work under hazardous conditions. There is a large enough pool of migrants who took countless risks to illegally enter Europe and who are determined to make their journey a success. But not all of them succeed. And those who demand a better bargain for their labour are quickly replaced by more docile workers. The supply is huge and shifting gradually further East and South.

The main purpose of this paper is to shed light on coercive labour practices in mainstream economic sectors, while not neglecting the particular situation of women and minors in the sex industry. It will look into the pre-migration situation and recruitment of “successful migrants” as compared to those who were forced to work under conditions they could not chose freely. It will further analyse means of coercion, the motivation of employers and exit strategies for migrants trapped in forced labour. In so doing, the paper links the source of trafficking with the final destination by analysing the different stages in the trafficking cycle.

The main conceptual entry point of this paper is forced labour. The ILO Forced Labour Convention No. 29 (1930) defines forced labour as “all work or service that is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily” (Art. 2). As such, the concept of forced labour is based on the liberal understanding of freely chosen work, notwithstanding some exceptions as specified in the Convention. Even if a worker entered a labour agreement voluntarily, his or her consent becomes irrelevant if coercion or deception was used (ILO, 2005b). Moreover, the key indicator to distinguish free from un-free labour is the possibility of the worker to always revoke a labour agreement without loosing any rights or privileges. This could include the right to receive a promised wage.

The ILO Forced Labour Convention complements the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Human Beings, especially Women and Children, adopted in Palermo in 2000. The Palermo Protocol, however, is more specific on the forms of coercion as well as exploitation. While forced labour according to the ILO Forced Labour Convention (No 29) includes any work or service – be it legitimate or not – the Palermo Protocol distinguishes between forced prostitution and forced labour. It also lists particular forms of exploitation such as serfdom, debt bondage and slavery-like practices that are also covered under Convention 29.

In order to distinguish between trafficking for the purpose of forced labour and other forms of forced labour (e.g. forced prison labour) this paper uses movement as the key criterion. It is thereby irrelevant whether the movement took place across borders or not, even though cases presented in this paper refer to cross-border movement. Hence, a person who moved away from his or her place of origin, and was recruited at some point into coercive labour or service would be called a forced labour victim. At the same time, he or she is also a victim of human trafficking.

The use of the term “victim” does not imply that workers who suffered coercion and deception are helpless subjects in the hands of their exploiters. They may not see themselves as victims either. The distinction between perpetrators and victims is usually being made because forced labour and trafficking are criminal acts, and criminal law requires this distinction. Research based on interviews with victims, however, has shown that they are by no means unable to influence their situation. While traffickers always attempt to subjugate their victims, trafficked persons seek to maintain or restore their independence and dignity. If this paper speaks about trafficking/forced labour victims it does so in the legal sense of the term. It should be understood that they are workers in the first place.

The paper is based on ILO research carried out between 2003 and 2007. It summarizes largely qualitative research from ten European source, transit and destination countries.3 It is therefore the result of a collective effort of researchers from many countries. The purpose of this project was to close a gap in current research that exists up to today: Most trafficking-related research, in particular primary research, focuses on trafficking of women for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Other forms of trafficking, such as those linked to forced labour in labour-intensive economic sectors, are still under-researched and under-theorized.4

The paper is structured as follows: first, the methodology is explained and limitations of current research on trafficking are discussed; second, factors stimulating the supply of vulnerable migrant workers are analysed; third, a typology of recruitment mechanisms is presented and described using case study examples; fourth, forms of exploitation and coercion are presented, followed by a discussion of demand factors. The final chapter looks at exit strategies of trafficked persons and the impact of immigration and labour market regulations on these exit options.

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