Speech by minister Asscher of Social Affairs and Employment for conference on strengthening multidisciplinary operational cooperation to fight trafficking in human beings, Amsterdam, 18 April 2013

'Putting Rantsev into Practice'

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am honoured and delighted to speak to you today. You have been addressing a serious topic for the past few days. Oxana Rantseva is a symbol of countless anonymous victims of trafficking in human beings. This is a crime that reduces people to commodities and undermines human dignity. It affects a whole range of industries worldwide. And it is a crime that demands a united international response.

That is why I am pleased to see experts from so many countries and institutions here: public prosecution services, police, border agencies, immigration services, labour inspectorates and local governments. I would like to share some of our experiences with you. But before I do, I want to stress that working together and sharing information pays off. Let’s learn from each others’ experiences so that we can put up a stronger common front. We are making progress, but we can’t afford to stand still. Because the traffickers aren’t! Trafficking in human beings is a complex puzzle that we can only solve together.

A conference about this subject at this place has personal significance for me. When I was a member of the municipal executive for this wonderful city, I took a firm stand on the abuses in the prostitution industry. The red light district is just a stone’s throw from here. This world-famous crowd-puller has a dark side: women, often from foreign countries, are forced into prostitution, enticed to come here under false pretences or worse. Many are vulnerable women who have fallen prey to ruthless pimps and traffickers.

Now, I know that prostitution, by its nature, cannot be easily compared to more conventional employment sectors. But as Minister of Social Affairs and Employment I have to tell you that, even in those sectors, we see examples of labour exploitation that are almost medieval. 

In the catering industry, for instance. The case involving a Chinese chef which led to the conviction of five Chinese restaurant owners last month revealed how human traffickers operate.

The five defendants had forced a Chinese chef to work in restaurants in Arnhem and Amsterdam in appalling circumstances. The chef was brought to the Netherlands in 2007 through a Chinese employment agency. He was forced to work long days, his salary was taken from his bank account and most of the time he lived in an unventilated storage space under the restaurant in Amsterdam. Without money or language skills, there was nothing he could do. A year later, when he finally managed to get to a police station with the help of friends, he was so weak that he needed medical care.

This case has all the elements of labour exploitation: an international aspect, a vulnerable and dependent victim, intimidation and violation of several laws and regulations in the areas of immigration, human trafficking and immigrant labour. This case shows that results can be achieved when different institutions work together: the NGOs Fairwork and De Wende, which reported the case and assisted the victim, the lawyers who worked for him and the police.

There are other problem sectors too. Asparagus and mushroom growers, for example, which employ large numbers of workers from Central and Eastern Europe. Most business owners follow the rules. But competition and pressure on prices are fierce. Unfortunately, this tempts some to break the rules. The degree of infringement varies from case to case, but we have seen some very serious abuses.

Here’s an example. Years ago, the media homed in on an asparagus grower in the south of the country. Commentators described the situation at her farm in terms varying from unlawful employment to modern-day slavery. The workers were housed and employed in terrible conditions, and they were intimidated by an aggressive dog. In July 2012, the grower was sentenced on appeal to three years in prison for exploitation. The exploited workers – 76 in total – had been recruited in countries like Romania, Bulgaria and Portugal. Despite previous convictions in 2009 and 2010, the grower simply continued her abusive practices. 

I mention this case because it is a striking example of trafficking in human beings in a conventional industry. The Court of Appeal ruled that the grower’s actions constituted trafficking in human beings. This is also a good example of a case in which close cooperation and information sharing between the Social Affairs and Employment Inspectorate, the Police, the Employee Insurance Agency and the Tax and Customs Administration ultimately paid off. The case stood up in court and led to a stiff sentence, which was increased by the Court of Appeal.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that cooperation and information sharing couldn’t have been better. Despite all the negative publicity, the grower was able to continue her exploitative practices for a long time. And the victims could have been better informed of their rights and obligations in the Netherlands at an earlier stage. Preferably, before they left their home country, but certainly when they first started working here. People who are incorrectly, unreliably or insufficiently informed live in a shadowy world. And this makes them even more vulnerable. Malicious business owners, rogue employment agencies and obscure intermediaries thrive in this information black hole.

We can and must do better. And we know it. We are using targeted policy to make improvements. For example, the government has been working with municipalities to launch a project aimed at managing labour migration from EU member states. The project includes measures in the areas of information provision, registration, work, housing, civic integration and return. One of the measures is a brochure informing labour migrants of their rights and obligations in their own language. It is distributed in the Netherlands and abroad, and is available online.

In addition, we plan to specifically target rogue employment agencies and sham contracting practices. There are employers who misuse the system to cut their labour costs, and this results in unequal employment conditions for equal work.

These practices do not stop at national borders. They are international and can be addressed only through international cooperation and joint action. We are discussing the problem in dedicated European consultation bodies and we intend to make international agreements on information sharing and addressing signs of abuses. We are working to improve cooperation with respect to declarations on the remittance of social security contributions in other EU member states. In addition to our bilateral agreements with Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and others, we have raised the issue of sham contracting practices at EU level. For example, during the drafting of the new EU directive enforcing the Directive on posting workers abroad. This Directive will enable member states to share information and collect fines across borders more effectively. This will make it easier to eliminate unfair competition on labour conditions in cross-border employment.

Seen in this light, it is good that we have come together to look at what we can learn from each other and how we can further improve our approach to trafficking in human beings, in terms of prevention, investigation and prosecution. I am pleased to have the chance to share
some of yesterday’s and today’s conclusions and ideas with you:

- More attention should be paid to preventing and fighting labour exploitation.
- Relevant training and tools should be provided to frontline officers to do so.
- New forms of labour exploitation develop. We should be aware of this.

I would like to stress that tackling exploitative practices is a responsibility shared by government, industry and the entire supply chain. Every worker in the chain has a right to decent terms of employment and working conditions. By working together and sharing information, government agencies, the sectors concerned and actors in the supply chain can help safeguard that right. So we must not hesitate to do all we can on this front. Everywhere and at all times. Nationally and internationally. In every domain and on every playing field!

Thank you.