Greece: Human rights court awards €576,000 to forced labour migrant strawberry-pickers

Forty-two migrants, forced to pick strawberries under armed guard, have won the backing of human rights judges in their complaint against Greece.

The European Court of Human Rights ruled today that the Bangladeshis were subjected to forced labour and did not receive effective protection from the Greek State.

In the case of Chowdury and Others v. Greece (application no. 21884/15), the court awarded €16,000 each to 21 workers. A further 20 received €12,000 each, after judges held, unanimously, that there had been:

a violation of Article 4 § 2 (prohibition of forced labour) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The applicants are 42 Bangladeshi nationals who live in Greece. They did not have work permits when they were recruited between October 2012 and February 2013 to pick strawberries on a farm in Manolada. They had been promised a wage of 22 euros for seven hours’ work and three euros for each hour of overtime. They worked every day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. under the supervision of armed guards.

Their employers had warned them that they would only receive their wages if they continued to work. The applicants lived in makeshift shacks without toilets or running water.

In February 2013, March 2013 and April 2013, the workers went on strike demanding payment of their unpaid wages, but without success. On 17 April 2013 the employers recruited other Bangladeshi migrants. Fearing that they would not be paid, 100 to 150 workers from the 2012-2013 season started moving towards the two employers in order to demand their wages. One of the armed guards then opened fire, seriously injuring 30 workers, including 21 of the applicants.

The wounded were taken to hospital and were subsequently questioned by police.

The two employers, together with the guard who had opened fire and an armed overseer, were arrested and tried for attempted murder – subsequently reclassified as grievous bodily harm – and also for trafficking in human beings.

By a judgment of 30 July 2014, the assize court acquitted them of the charge of trafficking in human beings. It convicted the armed guard and one of the employers of grievous bodily harm and unlawful use of firearms; their prison sentences were commuted to a financial penalty. They were also ordered to pay 1,500 euros to the 35 workers who had been recognised as victims – that is, 43 euros to each of them.

The two convicted men lodged an appeal against that decision. The appeal is currently pending and has a suspensive effect.

On 21 October 2014 the workers asked the public prosecutor at the Court of Cassation to appeal against the assize court judgment, arguing that the charge of human trafficking had not been examined properly. That request was dismissed and the part of the assize court judgment dealing with human trafficking became “irrevocable.”

In its human rights judgement, the European court found, firstly, that the applicants’ situation was one of human trafficking and forced labour, and specified that exploitation through labour was one aspect of trafficking in human beings.

The court then held that the State had failed in its obligations to prevent the situation of human trafficking, to protect the victims, to conduct an effective investigation into the offences committed and to punish those responsible for the trafficking.

Under Article 41 (just satisfaction), the court held that Greece was to pay each of the applicants who had participated in the proceedings before the assize court 16,000 euros (EUR), and each of the other applicantsEUR 12,000 in respect of all the damage sustained, plus EUR 4,363.64 to the applicants jointly in respect of costs and expenses.

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