In a landmark decision on 30 March 2017, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) addressed one of the most horrific incidents of human trafficking and labour exploitation registered in Europe to date. In Chowdury and Others v. Greece or how it is more commonly known, the ‘Manolada strawberries case’, the ECtHR examined the complaint of 42 undocumented Bangladeshi workers that used to work as strawberry pickers in Manolada, Greece. The applicants were provided by their employers with makeshift, substandard accommodation without electricity and sanitation facilities, and had to work under the threat of armed guards.
When in April 2013, they staged a protest claiming several months’ unpaid wages, the armed guards opened fire on 155 people, severely injuring 35 of them. It was the first time since 1910 that a worker was shot in Greece, and the incident took place just eleven days after the transposition deadline of Directive 2011/36/EU on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims. The national court on 30 July 2014 found the employers guilty of grievous bodily harm and unlawful use of firearms, but not on the charge of human trafficking. They were handed jail sentences of up to 14 years and seven months, but the aggressors were soon released on bail. The compensation issued by the national court amounted to only 43 EUR per victim. The authorities issued temporary residence permits only to those seriously injured and many of the others were detained and deported.
When the case was brought before the ECtHR, the Court found a violation of Art. 4(2) ECHR on the prohibition of forced labour, ruling that Greece had failed in its positive obligation to prevent their exploitation and effectively prosecute the perpetrators.
Seven years after Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia, the Court reaffirmed the principles it had established concerning the protection of victims of trafficking and went several steps further. Firstly, the Court emphasised the preventive duties of the state, since it became clear that the situation was known to the authorities at least two months prior to the shooting. An effective preventive strategy is necessary for identifying and combatting instances of trafficking, which prioritises identification mechanisms including psychologists and social workers, and ‘follow the money’ investigative processes, rather than law enforcement that acts only retroactively.
Secondly, and related to the above, in this first case dealing with exploitative labour to such an extent, the Court helps us understand trafficking beyond the stereotype of sexual trafficking. Lastly, by ordering the Greek state to pay damages of up to €16,000 to each applicant, amounting to €588,000 in total, a compensation that is among the largest ever awarded by the Court, it makes a strong statement regarding its commitment to protecting undocumented migrants from exploitation.
It is important to not see this case as an isolated incident. Exploitative labour practices at the expense of irregular economic migrants continues to be a reality in Greece and other EU countries, with thousands seeking to eke a living as agrarian day labourers. Having indebted themselves and their families in paying the extortionate sums demanded by traffickers for their dangerous passage to Europe, these individuals are constrained to accept any form of work available, under any terms. Due to their undocumented status, they are at the mercy of anyone willing to hire them, thereby perpetuating conditions of modern slavery.
Yet in spite of the de-humanising conditions in which these men and women work, and despite their victimisation, they are not stripped of their agency or dignity. In the absence of supportive civic spaces, they create their own, in the shape of informal evening markets where they socialise and sell work gear and food products from home. They aid each other in making their living conditions more bearable by planting vegetable gardens, in remitting money to their families back in their home countries, and in reaching out to NGOs for support and legal advice, after incidents like the Manolada shooting. This is one of several examples of self-organisation around Europe where migrant workers create supportive structures for themselves. This solidarity among migrant workers can be institutionalised through forming social cooperatives for migrant workers.
A social cooperative is an autonomous association of persons that unite voluntarily to meet their economic, social, and cultural needs as well as to serve a general interest mission, such as work integration, through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise. Multiple stakeholders may be members of a social cooperative, including workers, municipalities and local citizens.
Such an enterprise serves multiple purposes. On the one hand, it can be an outlet to deploy the skills of migrants for economic ends aside from picking strawberries. In Italy, migrant workers have formed cooperatives of their own, in sectors such as elderly care and yoghurt production, while in other instances they have joined existing cooperatives in the tourism and waste management industries as worker-members. There are cases, where this has eventually facilitated the regularisation of migrants’ residence in Italy. Some cooperatives have even launched services tailored to the needs of migrant workers, such as insurance to cover repatriation costs and year-long remittances in the case of death. On the other hand, social cooperatives have non-economic purposes, serving as a space for language tuition, skills training, counselling, mediation, and other social services for the purpose of social integration, through input from the local municipality and community members. As opposed to other corporate forms, a social cooperative’s flattened governance structure and embedded participatory processes can best serve the interests of a diverse group of stakeholders. Inspiration in this regard can be drawn from a multi-stakeholder cooperative hostel in Athens, Welcommon, developed in part by the Greek social cooperative Wind of Renewal (Anemos Ananeosis) to house, employ and provide a basic safety net for refugees and other migrants. Though Italy shares with Greece the sordid practice of exploitative agricultural labour, the multi-faceted role of such enterprises in integrating asylum seekers and other irregular migrants has already been recognised there, with Federsolidarietà, the largest Italian federation of social cooperatives, promulgating a national charter to promote the integration of migrants through cooperation between social cooperatives and public administration in 2016. While Greece’s social enterprise legislation is currently subject to much-needed reform, it is already possible to create a Koin.S.Ep for the purpose of work integration. The roughly 530 Koin S.Ep.s have been created with vulnerable groups, such as the elderly, the unemployed and ex-substance abusers, but there is no reason why this model could not be extended to include migrant workers.
The existing examples of migrant workers’ cooperatives and solidarity networks serve as a solid basis for empowerment and self-organisation of undocumented workers around Europe and could aid in countering labour exploitation. Such migrant-led social economy enterprises also need to be supported by the host states and local communities, since they not only provide a variety of employment options, but can also help combat social exclusion and promote long-term social inclusion.