Phenomenon of THB for labour exploitation

THB for labour exploitation takes place when workers are, among other things, recruited, transported or housed, by means of a form of coercion (such as threats, the use of force or the abuse of a position of vulnerability), with the purpose of exploitation. In child trafficking cases, the means are not relevant. The exploitation can take the form of forced labour (including domestic servitude) or forced services.

Labour exploitation can take place within organised sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, fishery, construction, transport and catering. However, it can also take place in other sectors such as domestic work or care. Or it can take the form of being forced to play music on the street, to work as a ‘living statue’, or to sell a homeless newspaper.

Deception and dependence

Victims of THB for labour exploitation are often deceived, misled and made dependent on their employers (traffickers) in multiple ways. They have no real or acceptable alternative but to endure the exploitation. Some victims may not experience it as exploitation. Some victims may be willing to accept the exploitation, after the effort it took them to reach the EU (in the case of victims from non-EU countries), and their need to reach some level of success before they return home.

Victims might be dependent on their traffickers for work, food and housing, with no freedom to choose an alternative. They may have their passports taken, they may have debts (for example because they are charged a lot of money for travel or housing), or they may not speak the language. This may give the traffickers great control over the victims. Victims might be related to the trafficker or the trafficker’s family.

Traffickers abuse the vulnerability of workers to exploit them. For example, by forcing workers to work very long hours for little or no pay, or make them live in cramped and dirty housing, or have them carry out dangerous work without protection, and so on.

Men, women and children

Different kinds of THB for labour exploitation may affect men, women and children differently. Because of these differences, authorities may need to employ different strategies to be able to reach victims in different sectors.

In many sectors that are widely understood to be at risk of THB for labour exploitation, such as construction and transport, the workforce is mostly male. Therefore, the victims in these sectors are also mostly male. In other sectors, such as agriculture, both male and female victims can be found. In more isolated professions, like domestic workers or au pairs, the work is often done by women. But men also work in isolated professions like domestic work or gardening.

In sectors where workers have very little or no contact with the outside world, it may be less likely that victims can ask for help, or that the authorities will come across these cases. These forms of exploitation are more hidden than usual. Authorities will need to devote special attention to make sure that these victims are not forgotten.

Finally, children often seem to fall victim to forced services (1), like begging or selling homeless newspapers. This work may be combined with forced criminality, such as picking pockets or shoplifting. This may be the case because children typically cannot legally work in the other sectors we mentioned.

Combination of crimes

THB for labour exploitation is often just one of the forms of crime occurring in a case. Some countries see cases that are a combination of labour and sexual exploitation. In other cases, traffickers not only exploit the victims, but also claim benefits on their behalf.

Cases of THB for labour exploitation may also be linked to smuggling of migrants (see the Glossary for a definition). Being smuggled and thereby becoming an irregular migrant can make these people vulnerable to THB for labour exploitation. Especially when they have gotten into debt because of the smuggling.

Migrant smuggling can also be the first stage of THB for labour exploitation. For example, when the smugglers are also the traffickers who intend to exploit the migrants. However, it is important to remember that since about two-thirds of registered victims of THB in the EU are EU citizens (2), there is no need for smuggling in these cases. Also, as crossing a border is not a necessary part of THB, victims of THB for labour exploitation can also be nationals of the country in which the exploitation takes place.

So, even though they may be linked in some cases, smuggling of migrants and THB for labour exploitation are two different crimes that should not be confused.


(1) It is important to point out that experts do not agree on what constitutes labour, and therefore on what constitutes THB for labour exploitation. In some countries forms of exploitation such as domestic servitude, forced begging and/or forced criminality are included under labour exploitation; in others they are not. For the purposes of this website, labour exploitation shall include forced labour or services and (domestic) servitude. It shall not include the exploitation of criminal activities and forced begging.

(2) Source: Eurostat reports 2013 and 2015. More information on the page Statistics.