Pay to work: labour exploitation on the rise in Europe


Outside Spain, in other European countries, nearly 1 million Spanish live abroad, more than 60% of whom are of working age (16-64 years old).

One of the leading causes of this migratory phenomenon is the high unemployment rate in Spain, one of the highest in the European Union. In the Netherlands, for example, the unemployment rate is barely 4%. According to the National Statistics Institute, this contrast explains why more than 1,000 Spanish have moved to the Netherlands in the last year.

However, far from achieving this situation of stability, many young people have denounced the adversities they have to face after being hired in the Netherlands. Negative pay slips, unfair dismissals, misleading contracts, occupational risks, these are some of the irregularities that 500 workers have reported to the Spanish Embassy in the Benelux.

Temporary employment agencies contribute to labour exploitation

Employers in the Netherlands see temporary employment agencies as an opportunity to hire cheap labour without breaking the law. The minimum wage in the Netherlands is 8.96 euros per hour, but the contracts include a number of additional benefits (health insurance, accommodation, transport) that substantially reduce the wage bill. This, added to the fact that working hours are flexible, i.e. the employee only comes to work when the company requires it, means that workers do not reach the minimum number of hours necessary to survive or even that the payroll is negative, which is the same as paying to work.

Victims of social dumping and the phenomenon of the “Polish plumber”

The Bolkestein Directive, which came into force in 2009, allows EU citizens to take up residence in any of the 28 member states. However, employers take advantage of workers’ arrival from other countries, usually where labour is cheaper, to increase profits by exploiting their employees. This phenomenon, known as the “Polish plumber” phenomenon, is a common term used by European populists to accuse foreigners of stealing work from “nationals”. But the reality is different: companies take advantage of many immigrants’ desperation to offer precarious contracts.

Labour exploitation is one of the Eurogroup’s biggest headaches; in Portugal or Belgium, for example, it is the main form of human trafficking, even more so than sexual exploitation. The solution that the European Parliament, together with the Commission, is trying to promote is creating a European Labour Authority capable of preventing labour abuses and fraud, in collaboration with the competent local authorities.

Spain is no stranger to this scourge either. Although the Ministry of the Interior maintains that the figures for labour exploitation are low, the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA), whose estimates claim that the number of victims of slavery in Spain (whether sexual or labour) is much higher, has questioned the report presented.


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