Closing speech at launch conference on severe labour exploitation in the EU

Constantinos Manolopoulos, FRA interim Director, makes a closing speech at the launch event for FRA's ‘Severe labour exploitation in the EU’ project at the Council of the EU on 2 June in Brussels.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As we end today’s event, I would like to thank you all for joining the conference. Your presence today shows a strong commitment to work towards eradicating severe forms of labour exploitation in the European Union.

In particular, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the panellists and speakers for sharing their expertise with us. I took note with a great interest of your valuable interventions.

The aims of this conference were high, as we examined many challenges the EU faces in combating severe forms of labour exploitation within its borders. We met today not only to discuss the implications of severe labour exploitation, but more importantly the conditions necessary to overcome it.

Severe labour exploitation violates the fundamental rights of migrants and EU citizens alike. It too often goes unnoticed, which is why I’m pleased to note media interest in our report. The role of the media, as well as that of politicians and other opinion makers, is vital to help raise public awareness and sensitivity to these appalling practices.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Allow me in my closing remarks to highlight some of the key issues raised today. Reinis Uzulnieks from the Latvian Ministry of Welfare emphasised the importance of effective cooperation between institutions at the national and EU levels, and also with civil society. EU Anti-Trafficking Coordinator Maria Vassiliadou spoke about the unacceptability of victims “falling through the cracks” of the EU’s legal system and said that we must not lose sight of the victims, a statement I absolutely agree with.

We would also of course like to stress the comments made by Iliana Iotova, Liliana Sorrentino and others that FRA’s report contains the first such comprehensive and comparative research into severe forms of labour exploitation in the EU, and that these results can be used to develop practical solutions to improve the current situation, which is unsatisfactory to say the very least.

Despite the scale of the problem, severe labour exploitation remains largely invisible, partly because labour inspections do not identify such incidents and also because the phenomenon is largely underreported.

It may seem odd that somebody living and working under appalling conditions will not come forward and report it, even if given the opportunity by labour inspectors or the police to do so. To make just one of the reasons for this unwillingness clearer, I would like here to quote one of the experts interviewed for the report, a representative of an employers’ association in Belgium who said:

“Maybe they are ashamed. I talked to the inspector of the judicial police and he told me really awful stories of people that yes, they were actually ashamed.”

However, it is not just a sense of shame that prevents people from coming forward. Our interviews show that migrant workers are reluctant to report because they are afraid of being forced to leave the country or because they simply do not know their rights and are unaware of the support services available to them if they do report.

The consequences of non-reporting are serious, as there can then be no redress or compensation for victims, and no punishment for perpetrators. And this sends a message that crime such as severe labour exploitation, actually “pays”. Petra Follmar-Otto from the German Institute for Human Rights talked earlier of an “extreme imbalance of power”, due in part to the economic situation in the EU and beyond – and this is absolutely true.

In the words of one of our respondents from the Finnish judiciary:

“The risk of getting caught is really small, but the economic benefit is ridiculously big. The proportionality between these two has to be reduced.”

Ladies and gentleman,

Despite the difficulties, there is a lot that can be done to change the situation. Please allow me to highlight three lines of action FRA proposes:

First, effective monitoring through systematic and expert inspections. Our research shows that lack of effective monitoring is a major risk factor. Public authorities need to carry out more workplace inspections, and improve their effectiveness, for example by increasing the cooperation between workplace inspectors and the police. The risk of labour exploitation rises when workers are employed not directly by the enterprise for which they work but through a recruitment agency or subcontractor, and this should be taken into account when inspection processes are put in place or reviewed.

Second, effective cross-border cooperation is needed to identify and resolve cases that involve a number of countries, which is often the case in subcontracting work or hiring through labour brokers.

Third, certification: reputation is undoubtedly everything for companies. Companies that act openly and fairly towards their workers are at a competitive disadvantage, because the decision not to cut corners on workers’ pay and conditions costs money.

One proposal FRA makes is the introduction of a certification system similar to that used by Fairtrade International, accreditation which in its own words aims to “secure a better deal for farmers and workers.” The introduction of such a certification system on a volontary basis would raise consumers’ awareness of the issue , and at the same time empower them to make a conscious decision to buy fairly produced goods and services. In turn, the ‘fair labour’ product would help businesses who sign up to the system stand out from the crowd.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Severe labour exploitation is a gross violation of fundamental rights. Today’s report only marks the beginning of our work on this issue. This afternoon, FRA is bringing together representatives of EU Member States to discuss effective means of feeding the results of our research into debates and policymaking at national level.

Our next step will then be to investigate the experiences of victims and those who are at risk of becoming victims.

It is unacceptable that these forms of abuse of human beings still persists in the EU. It inflicts harm on many vulnerable members of our societies. These people need and deserve protection and support. I hope that the evidence we have presented today will already mobilise policymakers to take swift and effective action to help eradicate the practice of severe labour exploitation across the European Union.

Let’s create a climate of zero tolerance towards severe labour exploitation.

I would like to thank the General Secretariat of the Council of the EU and the Latvian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, for making this event possible.

And I would like to thank all of you for your active participation and open dialogue. I look forward to continuing, beyond this event, the very stimulating and instructive exchange of ideas we had today. I trust that you all will take home further inspiration on how to foster the necessary change. I certainly will. Thank you.