Decent work, including fair wages and safe working conditions, is what all people want in their working lives. Unfortunately, not all work is decent work. The labour market has a dark side where vulnerable workers are abused to make profits. In the worst cases, these workers fall victim to THB for labour exploitation.

On this page:

  • Relevant legislation
  • General information
  • Multidisciplinary and cross-border cooperation
  • Specific information for organisations.

Some cases of THB for labour exploitation have a non-organised character, like a small employer employing and exploiting one or a few workers. Other cases concern organised THB for labour exploitation. These employers may use different fraudulent employment statuses to make it appear legal, for example fake self-employed statutes or made-up posting from other EU countries. Letterbox companies, contractors, subcontractors and temporary employment agencies may be used to hide the reality of the labour relations, and in some cases to hide THB for labour exploitation.

The work that victims do is a central element of the process of trafficking and may provide authorities with useful information to begin investigations.

Relevant legislation

In some cases of THB for labour exploitation, the anti-trafficking directive (EU Directive 2011/36/EU) may not be the only EU legislation that is relevant. If it turns out to be too difficult to prove THB for labour exploitation, organisations could still consider imposing sanctions on the suspects under two other directives:

  • the Posting of Workers Directive (EU Directive 96/71/EC) and
  • the directive on ‘providing minimum standards on sanctions and measures against employers of illegally staying third-country nationals’ (EU Directive 2009/52/EC).

Posting of Workers Directive

If the case concerns posted workers, the rules of EU Directive 96/71/EC apply. A posted worker is an employee who is employed in one EU member state, but sent by his employer on a temporary basis to carry out work in another member state. The aim of the directive is to prevent ‘social dumping’, by protecting the rights and working conditions of posted workers. The minimum terms and conditions of employment that a member state has must also apply to workers posted to that state.

These employment conditions may include things such as: maximum work periods and minimum rest periods, minimum paid annual leave, minimum rates of pay, equal treatment between men and women, and the conditions of hiring out workers, especially the supply of workers by temporary employment agencies. When an employer does not comply with the directive, member states have to take appropriate measures.

Member states could carry out inspections to monitor adherence to the Posting of Workers Directive. They can exchange information on the posting of workers through the IMI system. The European Commission also established an expert working group, that deals with problems arising from the posting of workers and the enforcement of this directive.

Employer Sanctions Directive

If the case involves the employment of irregular third-country nationals, EU Directive 2009/52/EC applies. This directive prohibits the employment of illegally staying third-country nationals in order to fight illegal immigration. To this end, it lays down minimum common standards on measures and (financial and criminal) sanctions. A member state can apply these measures and sanctions when employers do not comply with this prohibition.

General information

To prevent THB for labour exploitation, organisations could:

Inform employers about the rights of employees

It should be clear to everyone who hires an employee that they should be treated and paid fairly; should not be held in a job against their will; should keep their passports and other identification documents in their possession; and that they should be able to report abuse without retaliation. Informing employers about employees’ rights may help to reduce serious abuses and exploitation.

Focus prevention activities on exploitative working conditions

Prevention activities could be focused on exploitative working conditions, to prevent them from turning into cases of THB for labour exploitation.

Be cautious during government procurement

Governmental organisations (at the national, regional and local level) could make sure they are cautious during public procurement procedures, to prevent THB for labour exploitation by contracting or subcontracting (foreign) companies. This suggestion is taken from the FRA report. An example is the screening of subcontractors in the Nacka project in Sweden.

Be cautious when issuing business licences

Governmental organisations (at the national, regional and local level) responsible for giving out licences for businesses or business activities, could develop a method to screen the applicants for criminal connections. Businesses and business activities could be: hotels, restaurants, bars, gambling venues, martial arts matches, and building projects. If the businesses are (suspected to be) involved in criminal activities such as THB, it may be possible to refuse or revoke a licence.

Develop a framework for distinguishing between THB for labour exploitation and poor working conditions

It is the employer’s duty to provide decent work. However, some employers offer poor working conditions, and in the worst cases engage in THB for labour exploitation. A clear dividing line between poor employment conditions and THB for labour exploitation has not yet been fully developed.

It is nonetheless important to prevent poor working conditions. If they are not kept under control, they may provide a basis for more extreme treatment and exploitation of workers to develop. The relevant organisations could try to develop a framework on a national or cross-border level that makes it easier to make a distinction between THB for labour exploitation and poor working conditions. Such a framework may also make it easier to determine if the violations should be handled under for example labour or administrative law, or under criminal law.

See also: Klara Skrivankova, Between decent work and forced labour: examining the continuum of exploitation, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 2010.

Develop methods to contact hard-to-reach victims

It could be a challenge for authorities to reach victims in some risk sectors, because of the nature of the work and the context in which it is performed. These risk sectors often involve high staff turnover due to changes in the workplace (for example in construction work) and seasonal work in agriculture.

Domestic servitude in the informal economy is characterised by work in private premises, which labour inspectorates often do not have the power to enter. (The police can enter these premises when they suspect a crime has been committed. But they need to get a warrant first. When there is immediate danger to persons or property, the police may be allowed to enter and arrange the warrant afterwards.)

Fighting THB for labour exploitation in diplomatic residences is difficult, because authorities are not allowed to enter them. And under international law, diplomats are protected from prosecution in the receiving country (see the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, pdf).  In addition to these difficulties in contacting victims, identification of a possible victim is also a challenge because they often do not see themselves as a victim.

For these cases, other methods could be developed, such as:

In Slovenia, a group of neighbours were prosecuted in a case of domestic servitude.

Detect signs through the registration of where people work

In many countries people have to register where they work. This gives the responsible government agency an opportunity to detect signs of THB for labour exploitation.

The timing of the registration differs per country. For example, when it comes to posted workers, some countries require the employer to submit documents on the workers before they start to work; in other countries, this can be done when the workers have already started. Migrant workers who work for an employer that is based in the country itself often also have to register.

Multidisciplinary and cross-border cooperation

When it comes to multidisciplinary and cross-border cooperation in the area of work, organisations could:

Conduct multidisciplinary, cross-border and/or simultaneous inspections

Sometimes it can be useful to carry out multidisciplinary or simultaneous inspections of places of work, involving the labour inspectorate, customs, border force, police or social security authorities. This might, for example, help to uncover cases of fake self-employment.

During multidisciplinary inspections, organisations can pay attention to several aspects of the employment situation, such as compliance with labour law, social security law, or migration law. Since the workplace will be looked at from different angles, this will increase the chance that signs of THB for labour exploitation are detected.

Simultaneous inspections of different locations of the same company will prevent the locations from warning each other about the inspection.
In Malta, for example, the Employment and Training Corporation (ETC) and the Immigration Police conduct several inspections at workplaces, generally in the construction and hospitality sectors, to ensure regular employment. Any possible indicators of THB will also be looked into.

Clarify organisation roles

When different enforcement agencies work together (such as the police and labour inspectorate), they need to clarify their responsibilities and powers. That way, it is clear beforehand who is able to do what. They could for example clarify who could undertake which activity during a joint inspection. If a joint inspection is not possible, they could determine which body should inspect first (that is, sequencing the use of their powers), in order to secure evidence and legitimately be able to share that information with partners.

Communicate joint efforts

The fact that (multidisciplinary) inspections are being carried out needs to be communicated to the companies and workers, either through the media, or in a more targeted way within certain risk sectors. Knowing that companies will be inspected may contribute to prevention, since it may discourage some companies from using exploited workers.

Share suspicions of THB for labour exploitation with the police

In countries where the labour inspectorate does not have the power to carry our criminal investigations, they (and other organisations without investigative powers) will need to submit any suspicions of THB for labour exploitation to an organisation that can, like the police.

Work with trade unions

Working with trade unions could help to uncover cases of exploitation in shipping, ports, fisheries and inland waterways. Because of the built-in international character of the shipping, ports, fisheries and inland waterways sectors, migration is very common. Trade unions often have information on cases where workers are exploited. The relevant government agencies could cooperate with trade unions to uncover these cases.

Trade unions, other private parties and government agencies could cooperate to enforce minimum labour standards and collective labour agreements that apply to both domestic and migrant workers.

In many countries, the enforcement of the labour rights of national workers by private and/or public partners is a fine-tuned mechanism. The cross-border supply of labour and the use of often complex constructions to supply this labour, makes it more difficult to enforce these standards. Cooperation between all parties involved is therefore very important.

Trade unions and employers could continue making binding agreements that define the conditions of labour on ships with crews from different countries. Trade unions and employers regularly make these agreements, for instance on ships with crews from both the Netherlands and the Philippines. One collective labour agreement can include different chapters concerning the conditions that suit different groups of workers. These agreements create clarity on the seamen’s rights and can help prevent poor working conditions from developing.

Specific information for organisations

The following seven organisations have specific information about work: