The protection of migrant workers from exploitation in the EU

19 August, 2020

The European Union has developed a solid legal framework that clearly proscribes labour exploitation and promotes equal opportunities and access to the labour market. The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union prohibits slavery and forced labour (Art. 5). Further, it promotes fair and just working conditions to protect workers, their dignity, health and safety (Art. 31). On 17 November 2017, the EU ratified the European Pillar of Social Rights. This document is specifically targeted for citizens and their rights to fair working conditions, equality and social protection.

However, these frameworks do not offer protection to irregular migrant workers, despite their positive intents. Those workers, who are not legally employed, risk remaining in the shadow of a system that does not assess their rights nor guarantee their protection. Experts suggest that in the EU, 70 per cent of irregular foreigners are employed. The irregular status of migrant workers reduces their possibility to find a job, thus leading to greater exploitation of their labour. This increases the labourer’s dependency on exploitative employers and strengthens the position of companies’ owners, who can easily use the threat of deportation to keep the victim in a situation of oppression.

According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), migrant workers are severely exploited for their labour across the EU, and inspections are not always effective at tackling this issue. Their protection within the European context poses a series of challenges which have been addressed through institutional measures. The directive 2009/52/EC of the European Parliament and Council of 18 June 2009 specifically criminalises exploitative working conditions towards workers with irregular status. Moreover, it requires Member States to implement workplace inspections to prevent employers from illegally employing irregular workers. There is urgent need to inform migrant workers of their rights and strengthen monitoring actions to guarantee fair working conditions among all labourers.

The crucial role of civil society movements and NGOs

Civil society movements and NGOs play an important role in the promotion of migrant workers’ rights, bringing the need to address their widespread exploitation to the forefront. There are several examples which outline the crucial contribution of activists and non-governmental organisations in raising awareness on migrants’ exploitation at the European level.

Aboubakar Soumahoro is an Italian trade-unionist with Ivorian origins. In June 2020, he went on a hunger strike and chained himself to Villa Pamphili in Rome where Italian politicians were reunited to discuss the economic issues arising under the current pandemic. Aboubakar, through the campaign ‘I am not invisible’ (Italian: ‘non sono invisibile’) advocates for the protection of refugees and migrants, the support of workers who were impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak and the end of exploitation towards migrant workers in the agricultural sector. His powerful message is a call to action for everyone to increase inclusion and equality at the national and international level.

Clean Clothes Campaign is a global network which aims at improving working conditions and empowering workers in garment industries. Its European Coalition has partner organizations in 22 European countries and its goal is to enhance living wages and mandatory human rights due diligence legislation in Europe. Clean Clothes Campaign has actively condemned the exploitation of migrant workers in garment factories. For instance, they have called on the European Union to guarantee protection and respect towards the rights of Syrian workers employed in the production of clothing in Turkey, the third largest exporter of garments into the EU.

In 2018, the International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM) was initiated to bring forward the prevalent issues regarding the employment of migrants and raise awareness among European policymakers. PICUM has listed a series of recommendations to protect labour rights of undocumented workers. In its analysis, gender discrimination has also been defined as a major constraint for the support of foreign labourers. For instance, in Europe most domestic workers are migrant women. Due to their isolation and reclusive work environment, they may be subjected to a bigger risk of harassment and abuse.

These are a few examples which clarify the relevance civil society movements and non-governmental organizations have within the European and international landscape. They also highlight the urgent need to address these issues and intervene more effectively at the institutional level. Structured and systematic interventions are necessary to ensure better regulations of labour rights among, both documented and undocumented, foreign workers.

Concluding remarks

EU legislation has encouraged the implementation of fair working conditions and non-discriminatory environments. However, civil society movements and NGOs recurrently highlight the necessity to develop specific protection frameworks for migrant workers. In particular, those labourers who live on the edge of society, due to their irregular status, call for targeted interventions, effective inspections of working places and substantial awareness on their rights.

Finally, the European Commission underlined how the Covid-19 outbreak has increased vulnerability of foreign born workers. The difficulties that migrants encounter are associated with lower wages, temporary or irregular occupations, and impossibility to work remotely. Migrants’ welfare, health and rights are at stake and the current pandemic poses major constraints in this regard. It should be in the interest of the European Commission and the respective hosting countries to create the right conditions for them, increase income support schemes and create new frameworks specifically targeted at foreign labourers. This would allow to make sure that migrant workers keep contributing to the solution of the ongoing crisis and to the future recovery in a transparent and rightful way.

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