Joint corporate liability in labour trafficking cases - court decision example (Belgium)

In 2012 the court in Ghent, Belgium, held the end company liable for abetting the crime of trafficking in persons, regardless of lack of direct legal relationship with the abused workers. This is a good example of establishing corporate liability up the supply chain under anti-trafficking laws.

In 2007 tens of Bulgarian, Moldovan, Romanian and Kazakh workers agreed to leave their homes in return for lawful employment in Belgium. The recruiter (Kronos Sanitärservice GMBH – a company registered in Germany, owned by a German national of Kazakh origins) transported workers first to Germany in order to arrange for registration under German residence address, in order to engage workers under EU legal regime of transnational provision of services (posting of workers). Next day, workers were transported to Belgium in order to provide for cleaning of sanitary facilities in the chain of motorway restaurants owned by N.V. Carestel Motorway Services, since then the brand of Auto-Grill Belux (an Italian-based multinational catering) to which Kronos was a contractor. Upon arrival in Belgium Kronos declined to provide with lawful status for the workers as promised. Workers were made to work 7 days a week, without breaks, from 7am until 10pm, for a continuous periods of several weeks, under full control of the contractor. Their wages were withheld to be paid only at the end of the engagement period, on the level drastically below minimum pay standards in Belgium and average costs of living. Workers lived in substandard quarters. There was evidence of threatening, pervasive control and limitation of any outside contact.

Carestel (Auto-Grill) was not in direct or even indirect employment relationship with workers. Instead, Kronos was “renting” the sanitary space of Carestel (Auto-Grill) in exchange of collection of fees from clients of the restaurant. Consequently, Carestel (Auto-Grill) was denying any knowledge, control or impact over working conditions of the cleaners. Remarkably, in most cases of violations of labour laws, including trafficking cases, lack of direct labour relationship with workers is a sufficient defence against liability of end contractor. Many cases of severe labour exploitation showing trafficking indicators remain unsolved when end employers claim lack of knowledge of abuses by their subcontractors or suppliers. In the Belgian case, however, the court found basis for extending liability for trafficking, arguing that abuses by Kronos would not have been possible without Auto-Grill “deliberately ignoring malpractices”. Outsourcing was also found not an excuse for “deliberately ignoring exploitation of workers”. Not ending a contract after having a possibility to acquire knowledge about such exploitation was pointed at as a sufficient ground for being an accomplice of such exploitation. Carestel’s defence of lack of relationship with workers was called “pure cynism”.

Court’s decision is available on the website of the Belgian Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities and the Federal Centre of Migration:

Summary of the case is available on the website of the Belgian Interfederal Centre for Equal Opportunities and the Federal Centre of Migration:

and in the database of human trafficking case-law by the UN Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC):

Unauthorised translation of the court’s decision is aviailable here:

ITUC joint liability thb case brief Belgium