Multinational company condemned for exploiting trafficked workers in Belgium

The judgement in the (ex) Carestel case (Belgian motorway restaurant chain bought recently by the MNC Autogrill) was passed on by the Criminal Tribunal in Gent on 5 November 2012.

It concerns exploitation of Eastern European workers employed as sanitary cleaners at gas stations.

The trial started in Ghent in 2011 of two companies, including former motorway and airport caterer Carestel, accused of breaching labour laws by employing toilet attendants from Eastern Europe in conditions that have been described as “modern slavery”.

The women were paid only €3 an hour, barely one-third of the legal minimum wage. They were also forced to work seven days a week on shifts lasting as long as 17 hours.

Their direct employer was Thomaidis Charalampos, the Greek-Kazakh owner of Kronos, which formerly operated several motorway services in Germany. As expected, Charalampos failed to turn up for the start of the trial, having disappeared shortly after a brief period of remand. The case came to light thanks to an anonymous tip from a member of the public in 2008.

The other defendant was Carestel, which was at one time Flanders’ biggest operator of motorway and airport services. The company, set up in the 1970s and based in Merelbeke, East Flanders, was taken over by world leader Autogrill in 2007 and the name was dropped in 2010.

Charalampos was accused of recruiting women from Kazakhstan, Moldova and Romania in Germany as cleaning staff and forcing them to sign a contract in German which set out that they were being engaged as freelance operators. This allowed Kronos to escape Belgian laws on remuneration and conditions. According to the prosecution, Charalampos could not have continued his operation without the active cooperation of Carestel.

Not only the subcontractor but also the company was condemned, despite defending they had no idea their cleaning workers were trafficked and abused.

Trafficking for labour exploitation in Europe needs to be better addressed. While actors in the field have only discovered a tip of an iceberg, any solution to the problem will require understanding of new trends, developing new responses and partnerships.

For that reason trade unions, NGOs and faith based organizations launched a partnership to contribute to anti-trafficking response in Europe. Through the new project ITUC, together with Anti-Slavery International and Churches’ Commission for Migrants in Europe as international partners, will improve responses to labour trafficking. The three organzations, as well as national partners in Austria, Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, Lithuania, Romania and Spain will in particular focus on exploring new trends in trafficking – such as gender dimension of labour trafficking, more and more severe exploitation of increasingly large groups of exploited migrant workers in mainstream economic activities and new labour trafficking recruitment methods including the use of Internet and ICTs.

The FINE TUNE project is supported by the ISEC/EU DG Home grant and it forms a part of the ITUC global action for protection of rights of trafficked workers and strenghtening labour standards for decent work.