Press release regarding detention of Serbian workers in the Slovak Republic
With regard to the detention of a group of workers from Serbia on the grounds of illegal work in Slovakia, which took place on October 18th, the day celebrated as the European Anti Trafficking Day, NGO ASTRA – Anti Trafficking Action wants to stress that this is not a new problem competent authorities are not aware of; the cases of exploitation and violation of rights of Serbian citizens in Slovakia have been reported for several years while the authorities have been timely and continuously informed about them.
Since 2015 to date, ASTRA SOS Hotline has been receiving a large number of calls from citizens who were offered jobs in Slovakia or who went to work Slovakia. For the major part, these are manufacturing jobs in factories managed by big corporations – the manufacture and assembly of TV parts, automobile industry and food industry. Workers are recruited in different manners, but basically through advertisements published on line, i.e. on Facebook or on various websites posted by individuals or agencies with or without the license for employment brokering by the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy. Regardless of the manner of recruitment, all workers have been promised legal work, work permits, health insurance and optimal accommodation conditions. Further, the workers have been required to pay the agency the costs of obtaining the work permit and health insurance, although it is not allowed under the Law on Employment and on Unemployment Insurance.
According to the reports from the workers who went to Slovakia, they usually work illegally – they do not have either an employment contract or a work permit. They have to work 12-14 hours a day and their wages – if paid at all – are far below what was promised and agreed. In the majority of cases, the workers are paid the amount of money that is sufficient only for their trip back to Serbia. Humiliation and punishment of workers by employers are not rare.
Following workers’ reports, ASTRA has been contacting several times the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Trade, Tourism and Telecommunications (Sector for market inspection – in charge of supervising the work of agencies that are not licensed for job brokering), the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social Policy (the Employment Sector – in charge of supervising the work of licensed employment agencies), calling on them to take necessary actions, investigate and prevent violation and/or possible exploitation of citizens of the Republic of Serbia in Slovakia. Further, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Serbian Embassy in Slovakia were contacted, as well as the Slovak Embassy in Serbia, so that they can get involved and help the workers, i.e. inform competent authorities in Slovakia about the situation. However, official response has rarely gone beyond inspection visits to the agencies, charging fines based on the violation of the Advertising Law, ordering non-licensed agencies to apply for license at the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Social and Veteran Policy, sometimes closing the agency in cases of irregularities that cannot be fixed; it has happened several times that the owners of the agency that was shut down by the Inspection start a new agency with the new name and continue recruiting workers. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has not provided more significant and adequate assistance to workers who were arrested and abused in Slovakia, either. The failure to take specific measures is often justified by the fact that official reports from the workers do not exist and that there is no written evidence of workers’ exploitation, without understanding the fact that workers do not want to make official reports out of fear for their security, stating that the agencies have all their personal data and their home addresses.
Due to such approach by the authorities, instead of investigating whether there are elements of human trafficking, exploitation, and fraud in these cases, those who needed help were arrested yesterday and the Republic of Serbia has once again failed its citizens.
We would also like to remind of the cases of labour exploitation of our workers in construction sites in Sochi before the Olympics, which had the same pattern, both when it comes to the circumstances of exploitation and the response of the Republic of Serbia. Although ASTRA spent years trying to convince the authorities to protect the workers, the response – as a one-off reaction – came only after the arrest of a larger number of workers due to illegal stay and work in January 2014, when the Government of Serbia sent an airplane to bring the workers back to the country. However, such action was not followed by essential and systemic changes and none of the reported cases of labour exploitation ended up in the court or with the conviction of the perpetrators.
We are calling on the competent authorities of the Republic of Serbia, in particular, the police, prosecutor’s offices and the Ministry of Labour, Employment, Veteran and Social policy, to conduct a thorough investigation of all the cases of fraudulent and exploitative employment and punish the perpetrators, as well as to take measures which would effectively enable safe labour migration of our citizens. Otherwise, various agents and agencies will continue abusing vulnerability of our workers and exploit their work without punishment, while workers will keep being victims not only of labour exploitation but also of unclear or inexistent jurisdictions and responsibilities and of the absence of political will to approach the issue of labor migrations systemically.
We are especially calling on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, i.e. the Consular Department in the destination country, to insist on a better protection of our workers in Slovakia and take specific measures to prevent their abuse, as well as to offer direct assistance and support in situations like the one which occurred yesterday.