Could tens of thousands of foreign migrants be working in almost slave-like conditions in the Czech Republic? That’s the conclusion of an in-depth investigation by the newspaper Lidové Noviny, which features the story on its front page today. The paper says the global financial crisis has made it even easier for unscrupulous “agencies” to exploit thousands of workers from countries such as Ukraine, Mongolia and Vietnam – using coercion and even physical violence to enslave their victims, many of whom are deeply in debt to their traffickers. We spoke to Irena Konečná, co-ordinator of La Strada Czech Republic, which deals with the problem.
“We’ve monitored the rise of exploitation by employment agencies who brought many migrant workers from Vietnam, and even within the last two years, 20,000 migrant workers came to work in the Czech Republic. The thing is, these people are somehow trapped, because in Vietnam, in order to get here, they had to pay huge amounts of money, usually from 6,000 up to 14,000 U.S. dollars. So now they’re in a situation where they’ve indebted whole families and whole communities in Vietnam, and they don’t want to return even when the Czech government has announced the programme of voluntary return, because they know they bear responsibility for whole families and communities.”
Do you think it’s really feasible that there are thousands of people like this – Ukrainians, Mongolians, Vietnamese – being held against their will in this country?
“Well, it’s a question. Some of them could have used the voluntary return programme but I’m afraid that there are many factors why they didn’t. Those employment agencies even exploit the people more because they are very aware that their situation isn’t good. They would rather work for very little money than return home.”
The Lidové Noviny article talks about Ukrainians and Vietnamese and Mongolians etc being exploited by other Ukrainians and Vietnamese and Mongolians. Do you think Czech citizens are also involved in this practice?
“This is what I cannot answer, because we don’t have evidence of exactly the person who is exploiting them. When we did the research last year, we just focused on the problems of exploitation from the side of employment agencies, but of course there is a very crucial role of intermediaries, those who are interpreters. So we cannot just clearly say – OK, this is the fault of the employment agencies, or this is the fault of the intermediary. This is quiet difficult, and I cannot say yes or no.”
So what should be done, in your view?
“What I would like to stress is this: Czech law recognises the crime of trafficking for the purpose of forced labour and other forms of exploitation since 2004. But within five years, there has not been one sentence handed down in court, because the system doesn’t know what exploitation means. We need to find a legal precedent of what trafficking for the purpose of exploitation means. This is what we have to start to do, and what La Strada sees as a big problem.”
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