In 2009, more than 1,500 migrant workers, mostly from Vietnam, were lured into work in the forest in the Czech Republic with false promises by middlemen and criminal employment agencies.
This is what is revealed by the documentary “The Tree Workers’ Case”, directed by Daniela Agostini and launched officially today in Prague.
Around 600 of the victims were EU citizens from Romania, Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Hungary and Lithuania, equally deceived and coerced into two to three years of serious exploitation.
They received no pay, hardly any food, poor accommodation and have been threatened and intimidated when complaining, leaving them with huge debts.
The workers were organised into small groups in secluded forest areas and constantly moved to avoid attracting any attention. And indeed, no one has noticed them until 2009.
Roman Roušal is a landlord who has accommodated some of these workers. He says he was also deceived and never paid by the agency.
“I once saw a Romanian whose leg had been badly cut by a saw. It hadn’t been cut off, but severely injured. The Slovakian overseer drove him to the Romanian border and left him there. A plastic bag was wrapped around the injured leg… Even if he had died there, he wouldn’t care.”
Vietnamese workers paid brokers between 10,000 and 15,000 USD for their jobs in Europe, while the average annual salary in Vietnam is less than 800 USD.
The mother of one of the migrant workers adds: “They said that there was no need for a contract and promised to take care of my son. But when my son arrived, he had to pay to get a job, he had to pay for every single thing. He also had to pay for new papers because they only gave him a one-month tourist visa. Everything cost extra.”
Those who returned will have to work their entire life to pay back the money their families had lent for their journey to Prague.
Back in his village in North Vietnam, Long said “I don’t have any money to pay back my debts. My life has turned into a day-to-day struggle for survival. … We went away to earn a bit of more, didn’t we? If I had brought money back, I would have been proud. My friends wouldn’t have looked down on me. However, now when I go out, I’m not a respected man. I would never go abroad again. I wouldn’t dare.”
The Tree Workers Case highlights some undeniable trends on the EU labour market.
Increased use of subcontractors and dubious small agencies to execute work go hand in hand with increasingly severe exploitation of increasingly large groups of exploited migrant workers in mainstream economic activities.
It calls for an urgent and structural response from European and national governments.
This extreme, but unfortunately not isolated case, of modern slavery shows just how vulnerable migrant workers are when working in countries where they do not speak the local language or have proper support structures.
At the same time, subcontracting and posting constructions legally cater for businesses aiming to avoid their social responsibilities. EU employment protection should return to being more effective and inclusive, and migrant workers need to be organised to claim their legitimate workers’ rights themselves.
“The Trade Union of Workers in Woodworking Industry, Forestry and Management of Water Supplies (OS DLV) is following the situation with great concern since 2010. In cooperation especially with NGOs, the union intervenes at respective state and other bodies to put an end to such adverse practices, however without much success. This is due also to the fact that it is almost impossible to contact these workers, who are in fact outside the official labour market.” said Jaroslav Jurysek, President of the OS DLV Commission for Forestry.
The degree of exploitation in the Tree Workers Case arguably allows a legal classification as forced labour or trafficking in human beings.
“We have never faced such a case where thousands of people are injured. This is something incredible,” said Irena Konečná of the Czech anti-trafficking NGO La Strada.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) in June this year said that 21 million workers are trapped in jobs into which they were coerced or deceived and which they cannot leave. 1.5 million of these are in developed economies including the EU.
The global crime ‘business’ of exploitation of workers reaches 44.3 billion USD yearly. It is said to be the world’s third biggest crime business following the illegal arms and drugs trade.
One of the workers testified: “He left me in the woods, without money, without knowing where I am, without nothing… If I go to the police, what can I say? I don’t have any proof, and I don’t speak Czech. How am I supposed to explain the situation?”
Until today, the Czech police are dragging their feet; only three out of more than 100 witnesses have been questioned. There have been no convictions, let alone compensation for the workers.
Moreover, the very company responsible for this case of modern slavery is still being awarded 75% new governmental tenders in Czech forestry, while the subcontracting agency continues to operate under a different name.
The case only came to light because of a couple of young volunteer lawyers. It can be imagined how many cases go unnoticed. The risk is low and the profits are enormous. Thus human trafficking continues to attract new players and keeps growing.