Between 13 and 21 September 2023, Europol and the European Labour Authority supported Europe-wide coordinated action days against human trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation in the agricultural sector. The operation was led by France and involved a wide range of law enforcement authorities, including police, immigration and border guards, labour inspectorates and tax authorities from 17 countries. 6 847 officers from national authorities took part in operational activities on the ground.
The action week resulted in:
43 suspected traffickers identified
20 new criminal investigations initiated
1 583 workers subjected to exploitation and labour violations identified (including 353 identified as possible victims of human trafficking)
687 employers committing labour violations identified
156 new inspections by labour authorities initiated
29 forged documents identified
27 653 persons checked
3 148 locations checked
17 231 documents checked
3 204 vehicles checked
Similar criminal practices in various countries
Behind the figures reported by the participating law enforcement and labour authorities are an equal number of persons affected by this ruthless exploitation. Workers in the agricultural sector, especially those in low-skilled and informal roles, face a substantial risk of exploitation, which is even higher for those working in seasonal jobs.
Investigators across Europe have confirmed similar modi operandi in relation to trafficking in human beings and labour exploitation in agriculture. These range from violations of laws on minimum wages or working hours, mismatches between payments and the employees’ actual working hours, to the employment of minors and practices such as debt bondage or the withholding of identity or travel documents. Officials checked thousands of documents such as residence permits, as these are often forged, counterfeited or misused through the look-alike method. In addition to working illegally and thus outside the legal framework that protects them, workers often face deplorable housing and sanitary conditions as well.
Fake job adverts lure workers into labour exploitation
Europol offers a guide on how to spot fake job adverts. Fake job adverts are used by criminals to exploit vulnerable jobseekers. These deceptive schemes involve posting enticing job listings, often from fake companies, or misrepresenting working conditions to attract victims. The targets are usually people in precarious economic situations seeking to improve their financial situation, with many advertisements offering opportunities abroad to further isolate victims.
This scam typically unfolds in three steps: the publication of attractive job adverts on social media and recruitment websites, followed by contact with applicants via messaging apps, and finally, the arrival of victims at workplaces with poor conditions that do not even remotely resemble what was promised. To protect themselves, jobseekers are advised to conduct background checks on the company and recruiters, scrutinise job details for unrealistic claims, and look out for grammar and spelling errors in the adverts. EURES (European Employment Services) offers a network of 900 advisers that can give information, help and assistance to cross-border jobseekers through personal contacts, and has an official database of job offers.
Some examples of exploitative working conditions uncovered in this recent operation include Bulgarian workers housed under appalling sanitary conditions, Thai nationals recruited to pick berries being forced to work day and night, and Polish slaughterhouse workers receiving payments in cash without being covered by collective bargaining agreements. In one case in the forestry sector, workers from Belarus without work permits had to use dangerous machinery without proper training and had no access to toilets or indoor areas to rest and eat.
Cross-border cases were jointly inspected by labour authorities, coordinated and supported by the European Labour Authority: Bulgarian and Romanian officials participated in the inspections in Belgium to help to check the working and living conditions of workers from Bulgaria and Romania active in the fruit sector. Simultaneous inspections were also carried out jointly by Belgian and Portuguese labour authorities to tackle illegal activities in the meat industry both in Belgium and Portugal.
The aim of the operation and Europol’s role
The recurring operation aims to provide an overview of the current criminal landscape in labour exploitation and to emphasise the importance of a prompt and accurate flow of information at the earliest stage of victim identification. As with the EMPACT Joint Action Days on trafficking in human beings for the purpose of labour exploitation, this operation goes beyond the human trafficking aspects and allows the European Labour Authority to pursue violations of labour law and workers’ rights.
Europol coordinated the action days and facilitated the information exchange between the participating countries. Europol provided analytical support, round-the-clock operational support and facilitated the real-time exchange of communication between the participating authorities.
France (action leader), Spain (co-leader), Italy (co-leader), Romania (co-leader), Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Ireland, Latvia, Netherlands, Portugal, Sweden, Albania, Moldova, United Kingdom, Ukraine
Europol, European Labour Authority (ELA), Eurojust, Frontex