"Modern slavery" – how labour migration impacts on the lives and health of people involved and what the possibilities are for workers' organisations improving them

From July 8 to 10, 2020 a seminar took place in Varna, Bulgaria, on the subject of “"Modern slavery" – how labour migration impacts on the lives and health of people involved and what the possibilities are for workers' organisations improving them”, organised  by NBH (Nell-Breuning-Haus), with the support of EZA and the European Union.

The proportion of migrant workers within the employment structures in Europe is constantly increasing. Migrant work is now an important part, e.g. in agriculture and in the care sector in Western Europe. The meat processing industry in Germany in particular is making negative headlines. Not only there are the working conditions called “modern slavery” (see https://www.dgb-bildungswerk.de/sites/default/files/media/product/files/final_modsklaverei_2016_78s_web_lowres_0.pdf or https://www.katholisch.de/artikel/25447-pfarrer-protestiert-vor-fleischfabrik-gegen-moderne-sklaverei ).

Regardless of the industry and the country of origin, working conditions can often only be described as poor to catastrophic and this leads to a shortage of skilled workers in the countries of origin.

With this description of the situation, the seminar was encouraged to work and an attempt was made to discuss possible approaches at improving the situation. The topicality of the subject was underscored not least by the current reports on the scandalous conditions in the German meat industry.

First, from the organizer's point of view, a few lines about the seminar design under the general conditions of a global pandemic. Of course - in addition to the main topic of “labour migration” - the determining element of this event was the current pandemic. For a long time it was unclear in the planning phase whether the seminar would be possible to hold at the beginning of July. A few days beforehand, flights were cancelled and rebookings made, entry and return regulations led to cancellations and cancellation of the cancellation a few hours later, the maximum number of participants was significantly reduced in order to ensure minimum distances etc. in the room; contactless thermometers, disinfectants and FFP2 masks were used in order to guarantee the highest possible protection for the participants. Despite these difficult conditions, we as the organiser would want to hold the seminar again because the evaluation showed that it was an enrichment for everyone present, that important contacts could be made and that the work results were worth all the effort.

In the end, 24 participants from Belgium, Bulgaria, Germany, Lithuania, Portugal and Romania met in Varna. The invited guests from Estonia had to cancel their participation at short notice due to the return travel regulations.

Impulsor in the seminar

At the start, Nadja Kluge from Faire Mobility (www.faire-mobilitaet.de) gave those present an up-to-date overview of labour migration in Europe and aid projects in Germany. Ms. Kluge advises Eastern European migrant workers in the DGB project as a team leader and above all reported very impressively on a network of work contracts, subcontractors on several levels, changes of company headquarters, etc. Here a system was created that has only one goal: profit maximization at the expense of employees.

Furthermore Veselina Starcheva (Podkrepa, Bulgaria) and Silviu Ispas (PROIS, Romania) described the effects of labour migration in exporting countries. Here it became clear that in various professional groups (e.g. construction and maintenance) there is a qualified training in Romania and Bulgaria - but after the training the young qualified workers "disappear" and look for a job in Western Europe. In addition to these young, qualified workers, we find another group, namely people who are fleeing poverty and who hope to earn enough in the West so they can feed and support their families.

Using the example of the medical sector, the nurse and committed trade unionist Krasimira Dimitrova was able to demonstrate the importance of “skills shortages through poaching”. A simple figure will make this clear: in Luxembourg, Sweden, Germany and Ireland there are more than 1,100 active nurses per 100,000 inhabitants. In Bulgaria there are less than 500 skilled medical workers per 100,000 inhabitants and in Romania even less than a hundred. According to the Bulgarian Medical Association, a total of 1,692 Bulgarian doctors left the country between 2015 and 2018. In Bulgaria, doctors must work well beyond the retirement age (sometimes even at 75 years of age) in order to maintain the health system.

In response to the question “Why do medical staff migrate immediately after their very good training?”, Ms. Dimitrova named various reasons: better pay, better career opportunities, better occupational safety, and lack of technical equipment. A nurse in Bulgaria earns an average of € 500 per month. (For comparison: the minimum wage in Bulgaria is slightly more than € 300, the average monthly wage is € 685). Many of the nurses work for several hospitals due to the shortage of skilled workers.

At the end Maria Reina Martin (Fidestra Portugal and spokeswoman for the IPCM platform of EZA) and Miroslav Dimitrov (Podkrepa, Bulgaria) were able to make it clear once again that labour migration often results from financial pressure and has a severe negative impact on the health of workers (psychological pressure, long separation from family, lack of social structures in the country of work, inadequate occupational health and safety, payment based on performance (“there is no such thing as being sick”), lack of information and support).

Results of the seminar

On the last day of the seminar, the following recommendations for action were finally discussed and adopted:

  • We need more European thinking in trade unions - e.g. legal advice in the country of work even without membership in this country; Union membership should trigger more European rights/aid. The European passport could serve as a model for a European membership card.
  • Review of return regulations in sending countries - clear rules for social dialogue are needed here.
  • In addition to the protection, trade unions should exercise much more control and denounce abuses.
  • Participation in the development of information platforms and blogs in order to give as many employees as possible access to qualified information; these information offers must be “simple, clear and free of charge” - and of course compatible with mobile phones.
  • The services and help of the trade unions should be linked more closely to the workplace.
  • Intensive review and evaluation of labour contracts
  • Coordination offices for social services in Europe
  • In addition to the trade unions, the role of the church must also be addressed, which can offer help, advice and pastoral care through branch offices and structures with appropriate job contingents, such as company pastoral care.
  • The European Labour Authority (ELA) needs to be more involved (in the social dialogue) - and trade unions should work to strengthen the authority.
  • Trade unions, churches and associations offer help, but it is also important to offer advice in the company via the works council and to support the establishment of works councils - a targeted campaign in affected sectors, e.g. in the meat industry, makes sense.
  • Prevention of company formation with the sole aim of undermining workers' rights
  • Other forms of cooperation, such as town twinning, should be used to seek dialogue.
  • The psychological strain of migrant work is a fact, but unfortunately there are no offers of help here. This problem must be discussed politically.
  • Address labour migration in the EZA network (submission to the Presidium) and encourage members to deal further with this topic.
  • Christian trade unions should actually involve the churches more closely in order to establish contacts and develop networks.
  • Discrimination is prohibited – by gender, country ... - this must also apply to migrant workers.
  • Decent jobs for everyone without borders - clear demands on politics and companies.
  • Use of educational institutions to develop educational modules that are made available to everyone in order to multiply offers of help (cooperation between trade unions and e.g. church educational institutions).
  • Media transparency must be significantly strengthened in order to create a wider public awareness.
  • Organise working group of politicians (MEPs) with the participating countries to put this problem on the political agenda.
  • Placement agencies with economic interests should be replaced by self-organised or church agencies, for example www.carifair.de

This list of suggestions will be made available to all participants in the national language and everyone will implement parts of them as far as possible. In six months there should be another investigation about previous implementation steps.

Parts of the event were publicly published on the Facebook page of the Nell-Breuning-Haus, including video interviews with the speakers; some contributions have so far reached 7,000 persons.