When the internet becomes a gateway to forced labour


“Between 2005 and 2006, the defendants lured deaf-mute citizens from Poland to Germany, on the pretext that they could work there,” reads the 2012 decision of the District Court of Dusseldorf, Germany. It is one of the rare cases of human trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation that has been taken to court in Germany in recent years. Almost all such cases escape any kind of justice.

For two years, the two defendants had recruited Polish citizens, promising them work and accommodation. They then forced their victims to sell key rings in various German cities. Their passports were confiscated. The Polish workers had to hand over all their earnings, were lodged in simple mobile homes, were underfed and beaten if they protested or refused to obey orders.

Confiscation of earnings and identity documents, physical violence, threats…all the key aspects of forced labour were present.

It was, in part, on the web that the two offenders found their victims.

“It was through the internet that the defendant contacted the deaf-mute victim K, in Poland, in November 2006. The defendant ensured her that he would find her a job in Germany and would take care of the necessary paperwork,” reads the court’s decision.

It was almost ten years ago and the internet had already played a central role in the affair.

Today, with the vast majority of European homes connected (almost two-thirds of Polish and Hungarian homes had internet access in 2013, and more than half of those in Romania and Bulgaria, according to Eurostat), the web is playing an ever-growing role in the recruitment of workers exploited in Germany.

“Almost everyone is on the internet nowadays in Poland. And there are countless online forums through which these dishonest intermediaries recruit,” says Monika Fijarczyk, an advisor for the detached workers’ support programme at the German trade union confederation Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB) in Berlin.

“There are those who ask the workers to pay recruitment fees upfront, for their registration with the administration in Germany, for example, a service which is, in fact, free of charge. Then, the pay is often nothing like what they were promised. Or they are not paid at all.”

This was what happened to around 15 Bulgarians, last spring, in Berlin. They had all responded to job adverts for package delivery drivers in Germany posted on a Bulgarian online forum. “Some of the ads were very succinct, such as, ‘Knowledge of German not required, paid 50 cents per package delivered.’ Others promised the German minimum wage of €8.50 (US$9.52) an hour, before tax,” reports Vladimir Bogoeski, of the DGB’s migrant worker support programme, Faire Mobilität.

Once in Germany, the Bulgarians found themselves working endless days. Those who were paid received well below the legal minimum wage. Others were paid nothing at all.

“Ten people recruited by the same company received no pay after two months’ work. What’s more, they had to pay for the petrol for the deliveries out of their own pocket. When they demanded their wages and were not given them, they either left of their own accord or they were fired,” explains the advisor.

Most of the workers returned to Bulgaria with nothing. Only one of them took the case to court. And won. The employer was ordered to pay €4300 (UD$4800) in unpaid wages.


Prevention tools

But for every worker that receives justice, many more go back to their home country traumatised, and with their pockets even emptier than when they arrived. Because the same type of abuses exist almost everywhere across Europe, as noted by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in a recent report published with the support of the European Commission.

Drawn up within the framework of the Fine Tune project launched in 2012 with Anti-Slavery International and Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe (CCME), the report gathers the observations of organisations assisting migrant worker in seven European countries (La Strada, Czech Republic, Lefö, Austria, Service Union United PAM, Finland, Migrants Rights Centre, Ireland, Caritas, Lithuania, AIDRom, Romania, and the UGT trade union centre, Spain).

All of them highlighted the phenomenon. The survey carried out among the partners of the Fine Tune project shows that a significant number of the trafficking victims supported by these NGOs had been recruited via the internet.

The European Union law enforcement agency Europol noted the same development in 2014, reporting that: “criminals and victims leave permanent traces [on the internet], which facilitates identification, but not necessarily intervention”.

It is even virtually impossible to take action against an advertisement that has already lured victims into exploitation. “A woman recently called me from Romania because her sister had been recruited through the internet to work on a farm in Germany. When she demanded her pay, the employer refused to take her back to her lodgings and left her in the middle of the fields. So she went to the police,” recounts Ruxandra Empen, an advisor with the German organisation working to combat human trafficking Bündnis gegen Menschenhandel zur Arbeitsausbeutung.

“Her sister wanted the man’s advert to be removed from the internet. But nothing could be done about that.”

The Fine Tune report presents a number of tools that are, nonetheless, available to help protect workers from the snares of the internet. The Romanian Foreign Affairs Ministry, for example, launched an information portal, in 2014, designed to guide and protect Romanians looking for work abroad.

The new protocol to International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 29 should also play a role in the fight against contemporary forms of forced labour.

This text adopted last year requires states to take measures to “better protect workers, in particular migrant labourers, from fraudulent and abusive recruitment practices”.

All that remains is for states to ratify this new protocol. For the moment, only Niger has done so.