From wrongs to rights - Ending severe labour exploitation - Presentation of the report on Severe labour exploitation in the EU – exploited migrant workers’ perspectives

Michael O'Flaherty
We shouldn’t be here this morning. It shouldn’t be that 100 years after the Philadelphia Declaration and the founding of the ILO that we should talk about systemic, criminal exploitation of labour. It shouldn’t be that we should talk about it in, of all places, Europe.

State Secretary Micula,

State Secretary Gimse,

Director-General Astola,

EU Anti-Trafficking coordinator Vassiliadou,

Members of the European Parliament,

Dear friends and colleagues.

We shouldn’t be here this morning. It shouldn’t be that 100 years after the Philadelphia Declaration and the founding of the ILO that we should talk about systemic, criminal exploitation of labour. It shouldn’t be that we should talk about it in, of all places, Europe.

We have just now heard of the extraordinary array of legislation, good regulation in the European Union. I want to add to that the impact for Europe of ILO recommendations, ILO conventions, the United Nations human rights standards and machinery of the Council of Europe.

Why could it be that after all this effort and with all of this legislation and normative structure that we face what we do face?

And I don’t want too go back over ground we have already covered this morning, but in terms of the seriousness, the systemic quality of the problem we are talking about today, I would like to take just four countries’ situations, very briefly. But, keep in mind with each of these clusters of facts, the cluster relates to just one EU Member State.

So, the first one. The country where we encountered numerous people who were only paid in cash, received no contracts, typically worked 11 hours-a-day, with no day off in the week and subject to 24-hour video surveillance.

That is a cluster of one EU Member State.

A cluster form another EU Member State is where people spoke to us of violence used against workers, no access to healthcare, forcible marriages to ensure visas, living in squalor, allowed one shower per month.

That’s another EU Member State.

Turning to a third EU Member State, we encountered stories of people forced to live in homeless shelters, in this country working 92-hour weeks, earning €5-a-day and made to hide during visits from labour inspectors.

And then, fourth and finally, in terms of this glance at the diverse situation, in another country people not receiving pay, instead receiving vouchers, children working 17 hours-a-day and extortionate fees demanded to provide work contracts.

Now, it’s stories of this kind that led us to do this work.

What you see today is the culmination of a multi-year project of the Fundamental Rights Agency, looking at the issue of protecting people from criminal exploitation in the labour market in the EU. Our first major output in this project was back in 2015. Probably some of you were here with us then. In fact I didn’t work for the Agency, but I’m not sure how, but I was actually at that launch here in Brussels.

A launch of a report that drew a picture of the story across the EU from the point of view of professionals and practitioners, which gave us very important evidence. But we felt that more work was needed to also match that with the view of the rights holder. The view of exploited workers themselves.

And so, over the period from 2015, we very carefully put in place a methodology and a study, in order to do that. And, while preparing for that major production, we also issued a number of discrete reports looking at specific aspects, such as the operation of labour inspectorates and the particular issue of women in domestic work.

For the study today it is all about the view of rights holders themselves. 237 adults of varying ages who come as we've heard from both the EU and third-country states. And we engaged with them in eight EU Member States: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and the United Kingdom.

The main work settings were four. They came from many diverse work settings but the four most prominent are agriculture, domestic work, the construction industry and the hospitality industry.

The 237 people were approached through gatekeepers such as NGOs who work in support of them and let me say straight away that this already indicates a certain research bias in the work. We met with, we interviewed, we engage with people who were already in contact with some form of support service.

And that bias tells me above all that we're only touching the tip of the iceberg. It's not that there's a better story out there that we missed. Frankly there is probably a worse story at that we were not able to engage.

So the findings though the findings don't come as any great surprise. They echo in part at least the findings from 2015. They validate the research, they confirm the findings, they put a further pressure to do something about each of the issues.

And it's in that spirit that I will briefly now mention eight areas where better action needs to be taken.

In the first place, we've got to look at recruitment agencies. There's bad stuff happening. Not every recruitment agency is criminal or corrupt but there are problems out there in the industry that it needs to tackle.

Second, we have to do a better job of insisting on the delivery of written and comprehensible contracts. The practice of refusing to give a contract or offering a meaningless piece of paper has got to be stamped out.

Third, slavery-like working conditions. I can't believe I wrote that word in my notebook: “Slavery-like working conditions”. And yet it's an accurate description of the circumstances we've found that demand immediate action.

Fourth, we need to do a much better job of ensuring systemic respect for health and safety regulations.

Fifth, we have to address the problem of deplorable accommodation. We heard accounts of accommodation you wouldn't put your pet dog in, it is so, so disgraceful.

Next, the patterns or the incidences of assault and sexual violence are deeply disturbing.

Seventh, we need to take account in everything that we do of the gender dimension. We must look at the distinct experience of women and men, recognising that the experience of women will typically be even worse than that of men.

And that brings me then to the eighth point and because it touches in large part women, we need to do a much better job of regulating domestic labour. It's too easy to get away with unacceptable behaviour. When the labour is at home, hidden behind the front door of private residences.

Now all of this, and as Tiina Astola very eloquently spoke to you just now, will continue to need responses of a law, policy and practice nature. And I would like to applaud many of the recent initiatives in this regard.

The European pillar of social rights is not just yet another term, it's a meaningful vehicle to bring about social changes. The establishment of the European Labour Authority matters. It's a significant advance. And so I want to express appreciation to the co-legislators of the European Union this morning.

Let me just focus on one regulatory dimension, that I think needs a particular focus this morning. And that's the role at the national level of monitoring bodies. There's been reference to them already but there hasn't been perhaps enough reference to this morning is the extent to which they are very unevenly resourced and trained across EU Member States.

It’s not some generically excellent operation. And we need some EU Member States to take more seriously the role of the monitoring bodies.

A second, very closely related dimension is the extent to which we need to encourage reporting of abuses to the monitoring bodies. We know from our work… we don't even need to research this to know it. But we know that there's a massive underreporting for all the obvious reasons that people are afraid to report. The migrant who doesn't have the proper papers is afraid of being thrown out of the country. Others are afraid of being thrown into jail, or afraid that the employer will be told that they've come to report or there'll be some bad consequence either for them or for the people getting their remittances back home who so desperately need the modest amount of money that they can send.

But when all of that is said and understood, one of the important tasks for all of us this morning is to discuss together how we can encourage safe reporting in order for the monitoring bodies to do their job.

And another dimension we need to look at is the models we use. Why do we so often rely on reporting models in order to trigger responses to abuse?

This is an issue also in tackling discrimination. We are relying on the victim to tell the story but the victim is typically the least well-positioned person in society to tell a story. And so, we need to find new models of engagement, new models of intervention that are not dependent on complaints from victims.

Now to help us all in working out the resolution of such intractable issues as these, the Fundamental Rights Agency has offered you in the report 13 highly detailed opinions. We'd like you to look at our opinions, to test them with us this morning. And going forward to see to what extent they offer elements for a roadmap for Member States and for the European Union.

We also offer you a number of promising practices. We don't use the term good practices. It's just they look encouraging. We're not sure if they're transferable but they may be. And so please pay attention also to the promising practices that we've offered to you through the research.

And really that's all I wanted to say.

There's going to be detailed discussion this morning so let me just wrap up by extending some very sincere thanks. I would like to, in particular on behalf of the agency, thank Myria Vassiliadou, the EU Anti-Trafficking coordinator whose cooperation with this project has been of high value. It wouldn't have reached the level of sophistication it has, were it not for your engagement. We'd like to thank the many organisations at national level who worked with us in order to generate the evidence and pull together the report. We'd like to thank all of you involved in making today's event possible. We thank the Romanian presidency. We thank the Council Secretariat. We thank the EEA Norway grants as well of course as the government of Norway.

But above all.

And finally, I want to most especially thank the 237 brave people who made this report possible.

Thank you.