Interview: Labour exploitation and forced labour in the Baltic Sea Region

Veikko Mäkelä, CBSS expert on human trafficking and Project Officer at the CBSS Task Force against Trafficking in Human Beings (TF-THB), talks about labour exploitation and forced labour in the Baltic Sea Region and what the CBSS is doing about it.

Veikko, tell us more about labour trafficking in the BSR: what is the state of play and what are the main issues? 

Labour exploitation and human trafficking for forced labour are one of the most identified forms of exploitation in the Baltic Sea Region. Labour trafficking takes different forms in the region and has been detected for instance in the cleaning industry, agriculture, the construction sector, hotel and restaurant industry, berry picking and domestic services. Foreign workers are especially vulnerable to this form of trafficking when they are searching for better opportunities for themselves and their families. 

The growing demand for low-skilled and short-term labour in the region, when combined with weak supervision of labour rights and conditions, increases the risk for exploitation and makes it easier for perpetrators to make lucrative job offers to reduce employment costs and create profit through exploitative working conditions. If unnoticed, the phenomenon is not only a risk to the victims but also the society as a whole as labour trafficking creates a shadow economy within the existing economy and distorts competition.

What needs to be done to tackle labour trafficking? 

First and foremost, labour trafficking needs to be prevented, victims assisted and protected, and traffickers punished. Since the problem affects our society as a whole, effective prevention also requires a full-scale societal approach. 

For instance, to detect labour trafficking, refer victims for assistance and investigate and prosecute the perpetrators, we need well-equipped law enforcement professionals that have the necessary mandates and are fully aware of the issue. 

In addition to police, prosecutors and border guards, labour inspectors are in the best position to uncover labour trafficking, inform possible victims of their rights and support their assistance referral. Migration authorities, financial institutions and employment agencies should have proper tools to detect labour trafficking before, during and after the exploitation has taken place. Professional state and non-governmental organisations and trade unions need to be in place to support the victims, whose personal situation might vary significantly. Moreover, judges and courts need to be aware of labour trafficking so that the perpetrators are properly punished.

However, it is evident that strong institutions are only half of the answer. The other is addressing the demand for cheap labour or produce. Consumers and companies need to be involved in preventive activities. This should also include ensuring that procurement activities of both in public and private sectors take into consideration and prevent labour exploitation in all its forms.

What is the CBSS doing about labour trafficking?

The CBSS Task Force against Trafficking in Human Beings (TF-THB) has been working on the prevention of labour trafficking for several years. The TF-THB Secretariat has for instance supported the CBSS member states by initiating projects on labour trafficking that have increased the awareness of regional stakeholders, provided learning opportunities, and supported the construction of national and regional efforts to prevent the phenomenon. The recent efforts have included four studies on labour exploitation in the region, study visits to Germany and Finland to learn about their work on labour trafficking, and the “Before You Go” awareness-raising campaign on labour exploitation aimed at displaced people from Ukraine, Bulgaria, Poland and Romania.

In addition to these practical activities, the Task Force also functions as a discussion platform, offering its member states a place to exchange information and share best practices on their work against labour trafficking. This allows the Task Force to establish a continuum for the anti-trafficking efforts in the region and to keep the issue on the agenda in the region and beyond.