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The Path to Eliminating Modern Slavery in Europe: Is it Possible?

Estelle Sutherland | Europe & Eurasia Fellow

Image credit: Dennis via Pexels

It is estimated that close to 50 million people worldwide experience some form of modern slavery. Globally, modern slavery, which includes people trafficking, forced labour or forced marriage, is on the rise. While the European response to modern slavery is among the world’s strongest, the aim to eradicate all forms of modern slavery by 2030 is looking increasingly unattainable.


As of 2016, 91 per cent of all incidences of modern slavery in Europe and Central Asia were cases of forced labour. To address this, Europe has implemented a wide range of accountability mechanisms and protective services for victims. Europe’s willingness to engage with the International Labour Organisation as well as its commitment to the prohibition of modern slavery in Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights are further testament to the strong European approach.


The European Commission has taken an additional step in addressing modern slavery by proposing a ban on all products made with forced labour from the EU market. Under this proposal, the European Commission intends to ban any EU-made products for domestic use, as well as imports or exports on the EU market. Enforcement will largely be left to EU member state authorities, with the Commission providing support through a variety of mechanisms, including through the issuance of guidelines and the provision of a public database. While yet to be agreed upon, this proposal is indicative of the ongoing commitment by the EU to address modern slavery.


In spite of the above, forced labour is still a prevalent issue in many European countries. Notably, countries such as Belarus, Greece, and Russia have all been earmarked as some of the worst ranking nations in Europe and Eurasia under the modern slavery index. As yet, these nations have shown insufficient commitment to the fight against modern slavery, with insufficient regulation or accountability mechanisms to protect workers against unethical recruitment.


Migrant workers are particularly vulnerable to people trafficking and forced labour. Syrian refugees in Turkey, for example, are at increased risk of labour exploitation due to poor financial situations and restrictions on working rights. There is a clear nexus between immigration status and modern slavery, with migrant workers three times more likely to be subject to forced labour than non-migrant adults. As such, it is crucial that national and multilateral legal frameworks are in place to protect the labour rights of all migrant workers in Europe.


External policy tools have been posited as a possible instrument for dealing with forced labour in Europe. The EU has declared trade agreements, import restrictions, and corporate responsibility obligations as leading priorities in the fight against modern slavery. The use of trade policy is a key element to promoting anti-slavery, particularly given the EU’s position as one of the world’s largest regional trading blocs. The use of foreign policy is also a major element in the promotion of anti-slavery in Europe. The incorporation of human rights protections into migration policy, for example, is crucial. It is further necessary to ensure that ongoing monitoring and oversight is enforced to ensure that human and labour rights are protected.


Beyond this, the EU needs to turn to more innovative solutions. The response to the 2013 Manolada shooting in Greece is one such example. In 2013, 33 migrant workers from Bangladesh were shot and injured while protesting labour conditions at a strawberry production area in Manolada, Greece. Many of these workers had not been paid for seven months and were living without clean water or sanitation. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) later determined that migrants in this area were subject to forced labour, and that Greece had violated Article 4 of the European Convention. The ECHR further found that Greece had positive obligations – that is, a pre-emptive duty- to prevent human trafficking and penalise such activity.


A landmark decision, this ruling emphasised the positive obligations on European governments to prevent the risks of human trafficking and forced labour. This decision also provided impetus for another innovative solution: the use of remote satellite imaging to identify evidence of forced labour. This approach has been offered as a method to identify agricultural areas hosting workers at a high risk of labour exploitation for government institutions and human rights organisations. Researchers argue that this method circumvents the resources necessary to physically visit worker settlements, thus enabling a faster and more cost-effective response.


In all, given the EU’s immense trading power, transparent and enforceable trade policy should be at the forefront of Europe’s response to modern slavery. The European Commission’s abovementioned proposed ban on products made using forced labour is an encouraging step forward in the fight against modern slavery. However, as they stand, current laws do not do enough to protect migrant workers. The use of satellite imagery is a novel mechanism which will allow governments and human rights organisations to target areas at particularly high risk of forced labour of migrant populations.


As such, through the combination of trade and foreign policy and positive legal obligations, it may be possible for European nations to better address the issue of modern slavery. Stronger enforcement mechanisms and a focus on the vulnerability of migrant populations to human trafficking are necessary components to an effective response, which may be strengthened through innovative solutions such as remote identification of forced labour. In doing so, European nations will demonstrate a more fulsome commitment to the elimination of modern slavery by the year 2030.


Estelle Sutherland is the Europe & Eurasia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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