FairWork, a GAATW member, works to raise awareness against the modern day slavery and its prevalence in The Netherlands. Sandra Claassen talked to us about the recent focus of their work on trafficking for labour exploitation in addition to trafficking for sexual purpose that the organization has been working on since the last 13-years.
Can you tell us briefly about current focus of FairWork?
FairWork started 13-years ago and has been working on issues of trafficking in the Netherlands. Since last year we have focused our work on issues of trafficking outside the sex industry. A lot of work has been done to address sex trafficking or trafficking for sexual exploitation but not much has been done in the Netherlands to stop trafficking for labour exploitation. We felt we could make a bigger impact in this area.
In our team we have many ‘Cultural Mediators’ who are outreach persons with language skills and knowledge of different countries and cultures .They reach out to the labour migrants who could be potential victims of labour exploitations. We found it is very useful to approach big labour migrant groups and ask them about their situations and then progressively ask about issues concerning exploitations. We make direct contact with the migrant workers to inform them about their rights, explain the legal system and help them make informed choices. If they wish to take legal course and press charges we provide support for them do so. If they do not want to press charge but would like to get the money that is due to them, or if they want us to help them improve their conditions, we provide them assistance. If they would like assistance in finding another job we refer them to employers. We refer the workers to appropriate government departments and make sure that the migrant workers access the social assistance system in the Netherlands. From this direct work, we gather information for our other activities. We see the problems faced by migrant labourers and plan our advocacy for policy changes. We also carry out awareness raising activities for the Dutch public. We use case studies whenwe conduct capacity building training for law enforcement agencies and other organisations in the Netherlands.
Tell us the how is it different to work on trafficking for labour exploitation as opposed to trafficking for sexual exploitation?
Working on labour exploitation outside prostitution provides new issues, for example a move from the criminal court to labour court. We work with trade unions to understand what they do and how they work to protect rights of workers. These are new actors and stakeholders for us. It provides a different picture of human rights and probably not as stigmatized as sex trafficking. We know GAATW has always looked at things in a broader picture but Europe has always focused more on trafficking for the purpose of forced prostitution. It is important to state that although our focus is now more on labour exploitation, we would like to see an integrated approach against all forms of trafficking.
Where are the migrants in Netherlands from and in which sectors?
The group of labour migrants is very diverse: they come from the EU member states such as Poland and Hungary, and also from Bulgaria and Romania who can work in the Netherlands as independent workers. For some groups special working permits are provided, such as for Chinese restaurants or massage salons. These work permits are given to the employers, so it makes employees vulnerable to exploitation because of their dependence on their employer. Actually this policy of work permit is under revision. In all these groups we have seen cases of exploitation. There has also been a case of a group of men from the Philippines who were working on ships that transport goods to Europe. There are cases of asylum seekers whose applications were rejected after which they became undocumented in the Netherlands and got into exploitative labour situations. There are Egyptians exploited by Egyptians that have been here for long. There is still a lot we do not know: the problem of trafficking for labour exploitation in the Netherlands is still partly invisible and as FairWork we have not been able to reach out to all groups as we have only a limited number of cultural mediators.
What, according to you, are the factors that push migrant workers into a forced labour situation?
Many migrant workers incur a debt just to be able to reach the Netherlands. The transfer cost, the pre-departure training that they must take and the ridiculous fines that are charged by the employers - for example for taking too many toilet breaks - all add up to their debt which they have to work to pay off. Moreover, they also have to pay very high rents for their housing. If they do not stay for at least three months, they do not get back any of their money. It is all a well-thought out plan to to keep migrant workers in vulnerable positions and make them accept the situation and continue in. Take for example, the situation of Polish women in the mushroom industry. Many of the workers hardly received any money for long hours of work and they were also forced to buy the food from the farm which was very expensive. Migrant workers are isolated and excluded from the society and forced to be only in the world of their work. So there is no support system they can avail of.
One of your awareness strategies includes involving employers by providing them information on fair employment. Can you tell us how you reach out to the employers and what responses do you get from them?
In the Netherlands we have organisations that represent employers of particular sectors. For example, organisations representing employers from agriculture sectors, from cleaning sectors, construction sectors etc. We work with these representing bodies to put the problems of labour exploitation on the table. We find that they are interested to hear from us. Labour exploitation has become a visible issue in the Netherlands over the past five years. This issue has got a lot of media attention now and employers have also been trying to make the working conditions better. For example in agriculture – they have initiated a certification for mushroom that is produced under good labour conditions. The mushroom farming sector hires a large number of migrant workers and is one of the sectors that has come up for a lot of criticism for its terrible working conditions and hire largely migrant labours. One of the biggest mushroom industry case in Netherlands is under investigation for trafficking and exploitation of Polish women. Now, fair products certificate has been initiated for mushroom and probably will be for other products such as strawberry and asparagus productions in the future.
The organisations of employers have been receptive to the issues that we raise but they still find it difficult to work with organisations like ours as they sometimes feel threatened by us. Them and us – we have the same positions but they are more defensive to put the cases on the table. But we as NGOs have to show the cases as examples and testimonies for the claims that we are making. When we bring the cases in public they become defensive and tell us not to generalize the whole industry because of some cases. However, it is important for us to bring out the cases and show the Dutch public what is going on. We hope to continue the dialogue with employers towards the future.
How do you see the impact of national and regional policies on trafficking on your work?
There are EU directives and the Council of Europe Convention on Trafficking that impact the Dutch legislation. We advocate for more focus on the rights of the trafficked person and a victim-centred approach. Legislation in the Netherlands is pretty good, but a lot can be improved regarding implementation. We are advocating for rights of the workers, for example for the right to compensation, such as claiming unpaid wages. That will be one of the priority issues for the coming year for FairWork.