In 2012, Belgium prosecuted the restaurant chain Carestel for the exploitation of restroom attendants. A number of inspection visits to these motorway restaurant restrooms had raised suspicions of irregularities.
For years, Carestel outsourced the services in its restrooms at several motorway service areas in Belgium. Carestel contracted a German company that recruited men and women who found themselves in difficult situations in Kazakhstan, Moldova, Bulgaria and Romania. In the formal sense, every restroom attendant was a self-employed person running their own company in Germany.
Inspection visits had raised suspicions of irregularities: false documents were being used, the workers were constantly underpaid and often received no payment for weeks in a row. They faced extremely long working periods, constantly changing workplaces, bad living conditions, restrained mobility and total isolation.
A team of investigators including police officers and labour inspectors was set up, led by an investigative judge. Interviews were conducted, searches done, a team of policemen and inspectors went on a legal assistance mission to Germany. Detailed reports of labour inspectors and police were sent to the prosecutor, who prosecuted both the actual employer (the German subcontracting company) and the contractor Carestel.
In its judgment of 5 November 2012, the Criminal Court of Ghent convicted not only the German company for trafficking in human beings (THB) for the purpose of labour exploitation with aggravating circumstances. The Court also convicted Carestel as an accomplice to the THB that the German company was found guilty of. The Court judged that the restaurant chain and its managers deliberately chose to ignore the exploitative conditions that the German employer put the workers under.
Partners involved in the cooperation
- Labour inspectorate: carried out inspections, informed partners about case of THB for labour exploitation, took part in team that carried out investigation
- Police: took part in team that carried out investigation
- Investigative judge: lead the investigative team
- Prosecutor: appointed an investigative judge and prosecuted suspected companies.
What made this case successful?
The guidelines of the Belgian prosecution service direct investigators to take a closer look at the companies involved in THB for labour exploitation. This case was successful from a prosecutorial point of view: both the prosecutor and the Court held a company further up the supply chain responsible for trafficking. This had never happened before in Belgium.