Saturday, 31 August 2013

Trafficking in persons: Labour exploitation

I wrote this article originally in Bulgarian for


When we hear  "human trafficking", the first image that usually comes to mind is that of a tied, chained woman, beaten, bruised, in tears... and so on. We think of a young, naive girl who was kidnapped or deceived, sold, bought, forced to prostitute herself somewhere in Western Europe. In Bulgaria this image is probably complemented by the fact that the girl is poor, illiterate and Roma, who may have even been sold by her family or consciously decided to work as a prostitute in the West but pimps found her, began taking her money and beating her... and so on. This picture can be completely realistic, of course, and I don't intend to disprove it. But I would like to show why it can also be harmful and to turn your attention to one of the less known faces of human trafficking: labour exploitation.

The stereotype
It is neither surprising, nor a coincidence that this image that I described springs to mind most often when we hear “human trafficking”. For years NGOs and state institutions, which try to bring attention to the problem and to run prevention campaigns, have been concentrating on trafficking for sexual exploitation and targeting their campaigns, images and messages to young girls. The reason is that NGOs (both in Bulgaria and around the world) working on the problem of violence against women began raising awareness about human trafficking and naturally focused on the economic and sexual exploitation of women. Their initiatives influenced the government institutions which readily accepted that civil society can “take care” of these problem. Media, on the other hand, take on the idea and multiply it tenfold. Their priority is the old and tried motto “sex sells”. Besides, prostitution in principle, whether voluntary or forced, is a controversial topic which raises interest, polarises society and, in the end, brings readers, hotline calls, TV shows, debates, etc. After all, the image (or story) of a young innocent girl turned into a “sex slave” by fat bearded men is a lot stronger than that of a child picking cocoa beans, a seamstress in a textile factory or a construction worker (I will come back to these images later).

However, there are a few problems with this stereotypisation. On one hand, the people who see these campaigns, images and messages, are filled with indignation that there can be so much cruelty in this world, with pity for the “poor victims” and maybe the good intention “to do something about it”, but not with attention and alertness to the real problem. These images are so terrifying that our mind automatically decides that “this can’t happen to me”, that this only happens to other people – to women and young girls, to the poor and unemployed, to the Roma, to the uneducated, the careless, the naive...

Most people would not identify with this image because they wouldn’t think “I am uneducated, careless and naive and I should beware not to become a victim of trafficking”. In this situation all participants are “the others”, while we, the general public, are on the side, passive observers who have nothing to do with the whole process. On the other hand, the professionals who could come in contact with victims of trafficking in their work (police officers, border police, social workers, etc) also remember this image from the campaigns and the media and more rarely manage to identify victims who don’t fit into it.
The police knows where there are brothels in a city and makes raids there, social workers watch out for bruised women in the company of shady men, in other words – everyone looks towards the prostitutes. Lastly, but most importantly, on a world scale sexual exploitation is not the most common form of human trafficking.

According to data of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) presented last year, from 21 million people who are in a situation of forced labour (which equals trafficking) in the world, the victims of sexual exploitation are around 22%, while the victims of labour exploitation – 68%. The data for the European Union is only slightly different – the victims of sexual exploitation are 30% compared to 70% victims of labour exploitation. But in April this year, Eurostat published data about the identified victims of trafficking in the 28 member states plus Iceland, Montenegro, Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and Turkey. While the ILO data was collected using a research methodology, that of Eurostat is about the actually identified victims in the studied countries and they show that 62% of them were trafficked for sexual exploitation and only 25% for labour. This huge difference in the data of ILO and Eurostat perhaps only confirms what I said above – that institutions and NGOs identify the victims of sexual exploitation a lot more often, because this is what they know and this is what they see.

Labour exploitation
We’ve been hearing for a long time about the terrifying working conditions in the Chinese branch of Foxconn, which produces and assembles parts for different electronics, including iPhone and iPad. Recently The Guardian published an article called “The woman who nearly died making your iPad”, in which it tells the story of the 17-year-old (at that time) Tian Yu who jumped off the fourth floor after she had to work 12 hours a day, six days a week for minimum payment and in bad living conditions. Children and adults in Uzbekistan are forced through threats by the state to pick cotton for little or no payment. An international campaign is requiring Kraft and other chocolate producers to stop buying the cocoa produced with child and forced labour in Cote d’Ivoir.

And if you’re thinking now that these things happen only in the “uncivilised” world of middle and east Asia or Africa, let me give you a few more examples, which are geographically and culturally closer to Bulgaria.

In 2009 one of the biggest cases of trafficking for labour exploitation in Europe was uncovered. OSCE and ASTRA (a Serbian NGO) alerted The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) about 700 workers from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Macedonia who were hired by the Azerbaijani company SerbAz to work in construction in Azerbaijan. Upon their arrival in the country, the workers received tourist visas and their passports were taken by the employer. They never received legal work permits, which immediately made them undocumented migrant workers. Since the summer of 2009  their salaries were always late and reduced and in October they received no payment at all. Apart from that, they lived in terrible conditions, without water, food or medical services, which also led to two deaths. According to workers’ testimonies, besides receiving no payment, they were subjected to systematic physical and psychological abuse. After October, SerbAz began organising the sending of the workers back to their home countries in such a way as to cover all traces of exploitation. Trade unions, international organisations, NGOs and consulates helped in the repatriation and assistance process. Some of the returned workers reported that SerbAz then employed 50 workers from Bulgaria. The Bulgarian trade unions were informed and information materials were published in Bulgarian language, but there are no indications that the Bulgarian workers were exploited too. The authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Azerbaijan began an investigation. (source: ITUC).

In 2009 and 2010 several Czech companied hired hundreds of workers from Vietnam, Ukraine, Romania, Bulgaria and Slovakia for tree planting and other forestry work in the Czech forests. These companies were subcontractors of Less Forest, one of the biggest forestry companies in the Czech Republic, which had won a tender from the state-owned “Czech Forestry”. For months the employees did hard physical labour of 10-12 hours a day, six-seven days a week. Instead of the promised 800-1000 Euros a month they received nothing or very small advances which weren’t enough to cover even food costs. When the employees decided to stop working or to report their situation to the police, they were threatened with violence. According to La Strada (a Czech NGO), up to 1500-2000 workers may have been exploited. This is a typical example of human trafficking because it has the elements of deception, coercion through threats of violence and deportation, withdrawal of wages and abuse of position of vulnerability (many of the workers, especially the Vietnamese, had taken loans to come to the Czech Republic). “I thought I was coming to civilised Europe but I don’t believe anymore that I can receive any kind of justice”, says one of the Vietnamese workers. In 2010 lawyers, with the support of La Strada, filed over 60 lawsuits on behalf of the victims. The first conviction became a fact only in 2012 and the main difficulties come from a misleading interpretation of the Czech law on combating human trafficking and the insufficient knowledge of the prosecutors and judges on the topic of labour exploitation. A documentary was made to raise awareness for the case. (source: La Strada)

In 2008 the court in Laufen, Germany, sentenced a 48-year-old disabled woman to one year and three months in prison for the exploitation of four Romanian women. The women worked 13 hours a day, seven days a week as cleaners, cooks and maids in a holiday apartment complex, although they had no valid work permit for Germany. Instead of the agreed salary of 850 Euros for a 40-hour week, the women received no payment at all. They did not speak any German, had no social contacts and were accommodated in a makeshift room with no beds and normal sanitary conditions. (source: German Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and the network KOK).

In 2011 the Dutch Labour Inspectorate found that a mushroom-growing company had been exploiting 70 Bulgarian workers, who also had no legal work permits. The workers had to work long hours every day, sometimes also in the weekend, and with dangerous chemicals for a net payment of only 3 Euros an hour, which is less than half of the minimum hourly wage. In addition, they complained about the bad living conditions with six people having to sleep in the same room. The police arrested two Bulgarian middlemen who tried to thwart the investigation. (source:

How many slaves work for you?
Human trafficking is sometimes called “modern-day slavery”. The victims are held in submission, isolation, beaten, threatened, manipulated. Once they fall into this situation they become someone’s property.

I began this article with the campaigns against trafficking for sexual exploitation and how we usually think of trafficking as a problem mostly related to prostitution. And while most of us probably would not use the services of a prostitute, especially if they suspect that she may be forced into it, to think about labour exploitation means to look at ourselves and how the goods and services that our consumer society loves collecting so much, may have been produced with forced labour. This means that trafficking flourishes not only because of those others – the fat bearded men, loverboys or members of organised crime. We, the users, the consumers, bear our responsibility too.

The website calculates how many “slaves”, i.e. people in a situation of forced labour or exploitation, were necessary to make the products we have in our homes. The methodology is prepared together with the US Department of Labour and ILO and is based on information about the processes through which these products were made and investigations in countries known for their use of forced labour. The supply chains of more than 400 of the most popular consumer products on the market have been studied.  
Although chances are that far not all clothes, jewellery and electronics that we possess and use in our everyday life, are produced through exploitation, the website gives us enough of a reason to think about our behaviour and how we can be more responsible.