Modern Slavery in the Council of Europe’s Member States

By Anna Oliwia Wierzbicka

The phenomenon of slavery has accompanied humanity since the times of great civilizations and perhaps even longer. Its history on the European continent can be traced back to the cradle of European values – Ancient Greece and Rome. Nowadays, slavery is primarily associated with colonial powers or with thousands of people from East Africa being transported to cotton plantations in the United States of America. The 19th century marked the abolition of slavery in many countries. Does this mean that slavery has ceased to exist? In 2017, it was estimated that 40 million people worldwide are victims of modern forms of slavery, which include debt bondage, forced labour, human trafficking and forced marriage

The Global Slavery Index indicates that in the region of Europe and Central Asia, which covers 51 countries, there are over 3,5 million people trapped in some kind of modern slavery. The reports of the International Labour Organization (ILO) also reveal the terrifying truth. The “Regional Brief for Europe and Central Asia” (2017) emphasises that modern slavery applies not only to adults, but also to children. 4.1% of all children in the region are the victims of child labor, the vast majority in the high-risk jobs. Another ILO’s report on the economics of forced labour indicates that in developed economies and the European Union (EU), forced labour generates 46.9 billion euros in a profit per year and the largest proportion comes from sexual exploitation. In the EU, migrants from newer and poorer member states, for instance Bulgaria, Poland and Romania are vulnerable to forced labour in wealthier EU’s economies. Workers from outside of the EU (Chinese, Turkish, Moroccan, etc.) also become victims of modern slavery within the borders of European community.

Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) prohibits slavery and forced labour in all Member States of the Council of Europe (CoE). Slavery and forced labour are two different phenomena. The former means that a human being is treated like someone’s possession, while the latter occurs when a human being is threatened to conduct work that they have not agreed to. Additionally, the CoE adopted the Convention against Trafficking in Human Beings in 2005; its implementation is monitored by the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA). The Convention has been ratified by 46 CoE’s Member States (excluding the Russian Federation) and a non-CoE state – Belarus. 

According to the GRETA’s 9th General Report, the number of identified victims of trafficking rose 44% between the years of 2015 and 2018, from 10 598 to 15 310. However, due to the differences in the way victims are counted in the Member States, lack of data in some years, and the fact that only identified sufferers were taken into account, these are estimates. The figures are probably much higher. The United Kingdom, France, Italy, the Netherlands and Romania are among the countries with the highest number of trafficking victims (both presumed and officially identified). As stated by GRETA, both men and women are victims of slavery. Labour exploitation of males takes place mostly in sectors such as agriculture, fisheries and hospitality. Females are liable to sexual exploitation and forced labor in domestic and care jobs.

The ECHR and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) are the most advanced and effective regional means to protect Human Rights. However, despite many preventive mechanisms, the problem of slavery still exists in the Member States of the CoE. Although it seems that this phenomenon belongs to the distant past, by entering a key word – ‘slavery’ (entering ‘Article 4’ may be misleading due to the fact that the Protocols to the ECHR also contain articles 4) – into the CoE’s HUDOC search engine, the result is 187 judgments. More results are obtained by entering ‘forced labour’ – 471 judgments. The following examples demonstrate that Article 4 of the ECHR is still applicable in the case law of the ECtHR.

The S.M. v. Croatia case, the judgement was delivered on 25th of June 2020. In this case, in 2011, a Croatian citizen, Ms S.M. was forced to provide sexual services by a former police officer, who had been driving her to the clients and taking half of her income made from prostitution. The man was brought to justice in 2013 and acquitted of the charge of forcing Ms S.M. into prostitution. The ECtHR found a violation of Article 4 and significant shortcomings of the prosecuting authorities and the courts in Croatia during the proceedings. The S.M. v. Croatia case is crucial, since for the first time the Court ruled that Article 4 of the ECHR is applicable to the trafficking and exploitation of women for the aim of prostitution. It referred to the Convention against Trafficking in Human Beings, according to which trafficking involves both national and transnational activities.

Another important case is the C.N. v. the United Kingdom case, the final judgement was formed on 13th February 2013. In this case, it was identified that the United Kingdom lacks legislation criminalising domestic servitude. Ms C.N. was a Ugandan citizen forced to work as a live-in carer for Mr K. with Parkinson’s disease and was denied the decent payment and her passport was confiscated. As a result of the C.N. v. the United Kingdom case, the country penalised slavery, servitude and forced or compulsory labour with a punish of a fine and/or up to 14 years of deprivation of freedom.

The last example is the Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia case with the final judgement made on 10th May 2010. In this case Cyprus and Russia both violated, among other articles, Article 4 of the ECHR, when national authorities of those countries failed to protect a victim of human trafficking – Ms Oxana Rantseva. Ms Rantseva was a Russian cabaret artist working in Cyprus. She died in unclear circumstances after being brought to a police station by a cabaret manager, who wanted to detain her as an illegal immigrant. The Cypriot police refused after checking Ms Rantseva’s details and asked the manager to take her from the police station. The Russian Federation also did not conduct an investigation into the possibility that Ms Rantsev is a victim of an organised criminal group. The Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia case reminds Member States of the CoE that they have a procedural obligation to investigate in case of credible suspicion that an individual might be a victim of human trafficking. 

Slavery, forced labour and human trafficking strike directly at human dignity. 40 million people in the world are in a no-win situation, no one hears their cry for help. Cases such as those of Ms S.M., Ms C.N. and Ms Rantseva are human tragedies that take place every day in every country, and the European continent is not an exception. In countries that ratified the ECHR, every single human being is protected against slavery and forced labour. The GRETA also continues its efforts to combat human trafficking. However, this does not make these problems disappear. As the case law of the ECtHR has shown, national legislation or public authorities let down those who should be protected. Nevertheless, the ECtHR remains one of the most effective international mechanisms to combat issues related to Human Rights violations with the ECHR as its most vital institution, where the victims can seek justice.      


Author’s profile: Anna Oliwia Wierzbicka comes from Poland. In 2020, she graduated with honours from the Beijing Language and Culture University with a BA in Chinese Language. She is a 4th semester student of Erasmus Mundus Joint Master Degree in Euroculture at University of Strasbourg (France) and University of Groningen (the Netherlands). Link to LinkedIn


Picture credit: Council of Europe

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