Instances of forced labour and human trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation have been found in a wide range of economic sectors in Belgium, including agriculture, clothing factories, construction, cleaning services, carwashes, the hospitality industry and retail. According to a report published by the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA), over half of the victims of trafficking identified in Belgium during 2009-2012 had been trafficked for the purpose of labour exploitation.
The majority of the victims of trafficking identified in Belgium in recent years have been foreign nationals, one third of them being EU nationals. Prominent countries of origin of victims of trafficking include Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Nigeria, Morocco, China, Turkey, Brazil, and India.
The Belgian concept of ‘human trafficking for labour exploitation’
The Belgian definition of human trafficking is found in Article 433quinquies of the Criminal Code. The criminal offence of human trafficking under Belgian law differs from the Palermo definition, in that it only requires two constituent elements:
- The action: the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring and receipt of persons and taking or transferring control over them; and
- The exploitative purpose, namely: sexual exploitation, the exploitation of begging, work or services in circumstances contrary to human dignity, removal of organs, or forcing a person to commit a crime or an offence against their will.
Significantly, coercive ‘means’ are not an essential component of the criminal offense of human trafficking under Belgian legislation, but rather operate as aggravating circumstances. Accordingly, Belgium’s definition of human trafficking for the purpose of labour exploitation is very extensive, covering all employment under conditions contrary to human dignity, regardless of the means used.
Belgium is one of the few jurisdictions where companies, alongside the physical persons running them, have been successfully prosecuted for their involvement in human trafficking for labour exploitation. In a key case in 2012, a court in Gent convicted a German company, as well as four of its agents, of aggravated human trafficking for labour exploitation. Legal entity Kronos was ordered to pay a 528,000 EUR fine, and its agents received sentences ranging from 1 year of imprisonment and a 13,750 EUR fine, to 4 years of imprisonment and a fine of 55,000 EUR. The principal, Belgian company Carestel was charged as an accomplice and ordered to pay a 99,000 EUR fine.
Under the Belgian Criminal Code, human trafficking may be punished with up to 20 years’ imprisonment in the presence of aggravating circumstances, and a monetary fine ranging from 500 EUR for the basic offence to 150,000 EUR for aggravated offences. These fines are to be multiplied by the number of victims in each case. In addition to this, art. 433novies establishes a number of accessory penalties for aggravated crimes of trafficking in persons, including the temporary or permanent closure of the business implicated, and the confiscation of objects or properties used for the commission of a human trafficking offence.
Enforcement of labour standards
Labour inspectorates play a pivotal role in the detection of forced labour and human trafficking for labour exploitation. In Belgium, specialised teams of labour inspectors within the Social Inspection Service, investigate claims of exploitation and carry out targeted visits to workplaces in suspected ‘high-risk’ sectors (restaurants, agriculture, horticulture, clothing factories, construction). During these visits, inspectors check for compliance with social legislation by looking at the labour conditions, pay, employment status of employees, and particularly by ensuring that all workers have been duly registered, and that the employer has insurance covering against accidents at work. In cases where the presence of ‘conditions contrary to human dignity’ is suspected, labour inspectors can refer the case directly to a labour prosecutor specialized in social criminal law. These prosecutors then investigate the case in cooperation with highly specialized social inspectors and the police, and will refer it to a criminal court if evidence of human trafficking under art. 433quinquies is found. This ultimately means that the employer will be charged with other labour offences in addition to human trafficking for labour exploitation. It also means that in cases where the criminal court cannot find enough evidence to convict for human trafficking, the employer may still be found guilty for several offences under the Social Penal Code. The Code criminalises, among other offences: violence and harassment in the workplace, child labour, making employees work in dangerous or insalubrious conditions, subjecting employees to excessive working hours, denying workers’ entitlement to leave and the non-payment, withholding or manipulation of wages (punished with significant criminal fines, which may be multiplied by the number of workers affected).
In 2012, Belgium also introduced a system of joint and several liability for the payment of workers’ wages, which is particularly relevant to the exploitation of workers in cases where victims are severely underpaid, or their wages are withheld or manipulated. This creates a chain of successive responsibility, linking subcontractors and contractors within a production chain, all the way up to the main contractor or principal placing the order. Principals and head contractors can therefore be held responsible for the underpayment or non-payment of wages to workers by a subcontractor located at the base of this chain system.
The Federal Migration Centre (formerly Centre for Equal Opportunities and Opposition to Racism) plays a vital role promoting, co-ordinating and monitoring anti-trafficking policy. The Centre acts as the independent component of the mechanism for a National Rapporteur on Human Trafficking. The Centre also takes legal action against individuals and corporate bodies for their involvement in human trafficking, and appears as a civil claimant in a number of cases of human trafficking, and in cases of trafficking for labour exploitation in particular.
Furthermore, the Belgian Federal Government promotes sustainable public procurement through its Guide for Sustainable Procurement, which provides a catalogue of companies whose goods or services meet a required set of environmental, economical and social standards.
Companies may also request the certification of their products with the Belgium Social Label. In order to receive authorization from the government to place this label on a good or service, the requesting company must demonstrate compliance with the eight core ILO conventions throughout its production chain. Misuse of the label may lead to monetary fines of up to 3 million EUR being imposed on the company concerned, or even to an imprisonment sentence of up to 5 years for the company leadership.
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