East European workers face ‘modern slavery’ in old Europe

Migrant workers from the EU’s Eastern member states face systematic discrimination when moving to work in ‘old Europe’, according to a new report presented on Monday (15 September) at the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels (CEPS).

Discrimination against those workers is “a pan-European phenomenon,” says Professor Carby Hall, the author of the report, who cited abuses ranging from bureaucratic hurdles to actual hate crimes.

The report, based on reseach conducted between 6 March 2006 and 31 August 2007 in all EU member states, was commissioned by the Polish Commissioner for Civil Rights and submitted on 31 August last year. It was recently updated. 

Although most member states have lifted restrictions on workers from the Eastern member states, they have failed to properly enforce equal employment rights for these groups as enshrined in the European treaties, Hall said. 

The EC treaty grants all workers certain rights, such as a minimum wage, protection from unfair discrimination, health and safety protection and working time rights. 

But instead of equal treatment, many Eastern European migrant workers have had to cope with a system which Hall described as “modern slavery”. Intimidation, emotional abuse or “exploitative practices” such as late or no payment at all, lack of proper contracts and holiday schemes and no access to social security were “frequent” occurrences, according to Hall’s report. 

He criticised EU countries for their “lack of will” to eliminate discrimination against migrant workers. A first step would be the ratification of the UN Convention for the protection of migrant workers which has not even been signed by any single EU member state, Hall said. 

He also called for “more robust, national legislation” across all sectors, providing equal protection rights not only for jobs in the “food chain” as it was the case until now, but also to construction or hospitality workers. 

Speaking at the CEPS conference, Janusz Kochanowski, the Polish commissioner for civil rights protection, said “economic migration has become one of the major factors of globalisation,” not less relevant than the issue of ageing population or climate change. “The scale of economic migration from new member states to the old member states has exceeded all expectations,” he said, referring to estimates that by end of 2007 2.3 million Poles alone had left their country to work abroad, with 1.9 million choosing another EU country. 

The UK and Germany were “countries of first choice” for Poles although Germany was among the four countries not to have fully lifted restrictions on workers from Eastern Europe. It recently eased entry burdens but the changes were only applicable to high-skilled workers (EURACTIV 18/07/08).

According to the treaties, member states from the “old” EU 15 must lift all restrictions on countries that joined in 2004 by 30 April 2011. For Romania and Bulgaria, which joined in 2007, the period ends on 31 December 2013 (see our Links Dossier). 

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