Europe struggling to 'catch' bad bosses who enslave migrant workers

by Kieran Guilbert | KieranG77 | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 5 September 2018 07:01 GMT

Workers reap hops during the harvest season in Czech Republic, August 30, 2018. REUTERS/David W Cerny

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Migrants said they toiled for months for little or no pay, and suffered threats and violence

By Kieran Guilbert

LONDON, Sept 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - European nations are struggling to stop migrant workers being abused and treated like modern-day slaves, as exploitative bosses - in sectors from construction to farming - dupe labour inspectors, a European Union (EU) agency said on Wednesday.

Workplace inspections are often lacking or ineffective in nations including Britain, France and Poland, allowing unscrupulous employers to underpay, overwork and abuse their staff, found an EU Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) report.

Of about 240 migrant labourers in Europe interviewed by the FRA - all of whom spoke of having been severely exploited at work - more than half said they had never seen checks being carried out at their workplace, or heard of any taking place.

Labour trafficking is rising on the continent and has overtaken sexual exploitation as the main form of slavery in many nations, according to the Council of Europe. 

"(European) member states need to strengthen inspections to catch exploitative employers and better protect workers," the FRA's director Michael O'Flaherty told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Modern-day slavery trades in hope and fear."

"Workers' hopes of building better lives for themselves and their families opens the door to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. Their fears – of retribution or simply losing the job, however bad – traps workers into accepting their fates."

About 25 million people globally were trapped in forced labour in 2016 - working in factories, farms and fishing boats, and as domestic or sex workers - say the U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO) and rights group Walk Free Foundation.

Migrants interviewed for the report said they toiled for months for little or no pay, were deprived of breaks or access to toilets and showers, and suffered threats and violence.

European employers in fields like agriculture, manufacturing and construction have developed extensive strategies to hoodwink inspectors, and cover up severe labour violations, the FRA said.

Workers are often told to run away, hide in toilets or lie during inspections, and some fear they will lose their jobs or be arrested or deported if they are discovered, the report said.

"If (the inspector) says 'I'm coming', (the manager) speaks with people and says 'if you don't speak nicely, or say everything is fine, I will kick you out'," a female Slovakian cleaner working in Britain was quoted as saying by the FRA.

The report called on European governments to boost the number of inspections and ensure workers are informed of their rights and referred to support services, which should encourage them to assist in prosecutions of exploitative employers.

"Current labour inspection is merely scratching the sides of the modern slavery problem," said Caroline Robinson, director of the Britain-based charity Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX).

(Reporting By Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Katy Migiro. (Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit

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