The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) has released a report on protecting workers from exploitation and improving inspections. The focus of the research is on exploitation in the workplace and its associated risks. It is based on a survey of around 250 workers who were asked whether (government) inspections took place during their working hours and how they helped counteract exploitation by employers.
The report concludes that inadequate or ineffective workplace inspections allow unscrupulous employers to exploit workers.
Labour exploitation affects both EU citizens and third-country nationals. The right to fair and decent working conditions, as enshrined in Article 31 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, is granted to both EU citizens and third-country nationals, whether legally or irregularly resident in the EU. Labour exploitation is not always a consequence of trafficking or forced labour. Those affected could also be victims of exploitation because they have to work in conditions far below what is considered acceptable under the law.
Over a half of exploited workers have never experienced or heard about inspections. In some Member States, such as Germany, Poland and the UK, more than 70% have no experience with workplace inspections. Inspections are rare, especially in the construction and food sectors, and there is a complete lack of inspections for domestic workers.
In most workplaces where there had been inspections, employers were present as workers were being interviewed. As a result, inspections were ineffective, because the victims of exploitation did not dare to speak openly. Often there were also linguistic problems, which led to misunderstandings with the inspectors.
Employers are able to hide workers or falsify employment contracts and time sheets because they had advance warning of inspections. One of the interviewees reported that there had been two forms; one which stated that they had worked the official eight hours and another with the actual working time of fourteen hours. Work equipment, such as protective clothing, was only made available sporadically.
Another problem is that workers are unaware of the potential consequences of an inspection and what their rights are, leading to insecurity and scepticism. They are afraid of losing their job. Because employers often get away unpunished, it reinforces the impression of inefficient inspections.
Recommendations for improvements
The FRA also developed some suggestions in its report on how to make labour exploitation more effective in spotting exploitation.
Member States should pay more attention to the construction and food industries and develop measures to provide for labour inspections for the activities of domestic workers.
Inspectors need better training so they can quickly identify risk factors. During inspections, more time should be spent talking with workers without the employer being present. Inspectors should take more time to make employees aware of the aim of inspections, their rights and how to proceed. Workers should be told where they can receive help if needed. Providing information on workers’ rights in different languages could help overcome language barriers. In industries where the rate of exploitation is high, inspections should not be pre-announced.
Click here for the FRA press release.