Against a backdrop of stubborn unemployment figures and wage-dumping concerns, a recent study has revealed that some 15,000 people in Germany can be described as modern-day slaves.
Migrant laborers work in the meat industry for a pittance
Most Germans fondly imagine that forced labor is a problem restricted to developing nations. But it also happens on their doorstep. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) study "Human Trafficking and Exploitation in Germany," 360,000 of the 12.3 million people worldwide categorized as modern slaves live in industrialized countries, and an estimated 15,000 of them in Germany -- a country that has no fixed minimum wage.
The ILO is now stepping up pressure for a global alliance to improve laws and raise awareness of what it calls a "hidden" issue.
Defining modern slavery
"The term 'forced labor' refers to a situation in which a person is being exploited against their will -- forced to work under conditions they do not voluntarily accept," explained Norbert Cyrus, author of the report. It depicts the plight of poor or powerless victims, cowed by intimidation and sometimes even violence. In Germany's worst cases, migrants are housed in basic, unhygienic accommodation with twenty people per room, working 80-hour weeks for negligible wages they have to wait months for -- if they're paid at all.
Globally, profits amassed on the back on forced labor amount to $32 billion (25 billion euros) a year, 50 percent of which is pocketed in the western industrialized nations.
In Germany, two-thirds of this workforce are women. Approximately 60 percent of forced labor occurs within the country's sex industry, with women from countries such as Columbia, Ghana, Thailand and Ukraine forced into prostitution after being lured to Germany with false promises, then robbed of their papers.
Identifying the problem, helping the victims
According to the Coordination Center Against Female Trafficking (KOK) in Potsdam, one way of tackling the problem is to improve police awareness so that more instances of modern slavery are identified.
"During a police raid on a brothel, officers might realize that some of the women are not there voluntarily, but it's very difficult to recognize such cases," said KOK's manager. "Police need to be sensitized to these situations with further training options. Then these women can be referred to advice centers, which can provide them with support throughout a court case, if they're required to give evidence -- which is a key aspect of clamping down on the problem, because taking legal action hinges almost entirely on personal testimonies."
Fear of reprisals, and, crucially, deportation, is one factor preventing people trapped in a condition of enforced dependency from seeking help.
"A lot of these women are traumatized, and help centers can provide them with protection and social support. Alone, they're not usually in a position to seek help -- they don't speak the language, they're not able to make contact with the outside world," explained Tanis from the KOK. As usual, however, "funding for these expert advice centers is facing ongoing cuts and they can't keep up with the number of cases they have to deal with."
Labor as a commodity
But muddying the waters is the fact that -- like many foreign prostitutes -- not all the people working in conditions that amount to modern slavery necessarily feel the need to escape. "They don't always see themselves as victims," said Tanis. "They think they're making money they can save or send home."
Other industries where the problem exists include meatpacking, construction, agriculture, gastronomy, and the textile industry -- although Germany has been spared the latter's notorious sweatshops, unlike the UK and France. Spurious agencies across eastern Europe, for example, recruit workers eager to earn more in Germany than they can at home. But the picture painted of what awaits them bears little to resemblance to the harsh reality they actually encounter.
Norbert Cyrus explained that many submit to their situation in the belief that any job is better than no job. "Hope of improvement and change keeps them going," he said. "Another reason these people accept inhumane working conditions is because they feel they lack any alternative. They end up feeling very fatalistic about their situation, so one thing that needs to change is their willingness to become more confrontational towards employers who are failing to implement prescribed standards."
In Germany, the meatpacking business in particular is riddled with what is essentially slave labor, on account of cut-throat price wars among Germany's discount supermarkets and a highly competitive, saturated market. In the last year, some 26,000 jobs have been lost in the industry, with workers from Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia picking up the slack for as little as two euros an hour.
"A billion euro business (within the meatpacking industry) with mafia-like structures, salary dumping and modern slavery has developed," said Matthias Brümmer from the NGG trade union in an interview with a local newspaper.
But Cyrus was quick to stress that EU enlargement is not the root of the problem. Referring to the need for "fair globalization," he underlined the challenge of lifting restrictions while upholding workers' rights. "The problem is not the EU's free circulation of services, but maintaining standards of fairness within that framework."
"The statistics tell us that we need better protection for victims," said Cyrus. "We need to improve their legal position, we need to inform them about their rights." Police identify some 1000 victims of human trafficking a year. "But often, these cases are simply treated as law-breakers," he observed. The ILO wants to see breaches of residency permits categorized as a misdemeanor rather than a criminal offense.
"People don't have to be victims of forced labor," said Cyrus. "They're made victims of forced labor."