• Luca P. De Cristofaro

The Perfect Recipe for Modern Slavery

Updated: Feb 7

Woman and Immigrant: The Perfect Recipe for Modern Slavery


The results of the 2018 Global Slavery Index show that European countries are far from dismantling modern slavery. The total number of victims of countries like Ukraine, Russia and Turkey – members of the Council of Europe – accounts for almost 40% of victims of human trafficking and forced labour in the European continent.[1] Biased and prejudiced minds might think that the western and more progressive countries, countries that are member states of the cradle of democracy that is the European Union, might be immune from modern slavery but the report shows otherwise. According to the same report of Global Slavery Index, Italy – founding member of both the European Union and the Council of Europe – with 145,000 estimated victims, is the country with the highest absolute number of victims, and Portugal has the highest prevalence in Western Europe, considering victims per inhabitants.[2]

It is, therefore, odd to find out that after more than 60 years of activity, the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has only found a violation of article 4 of the Convention a handful of times. And if we trace in chronological order the first time a State was found in breach of the article, we notice that it is fairly recent as the first case adjudicated is Siliadin v. France, 2005. Siliadin v. France is a case about a Togolese national that was brought to France, forced into servitude with no days off, and without receiving a proper salary or pocket money. Ms. Siliadin is a third-country national and a woman, two elements that are fundamental when analyzing the cases brought to the court for breaching article 4, and more prominent when taking into account the cases that were found in breach of article 4. The jurisprudence of the Court of Strasbourg has been changing and developing very fast on this issue. With Siliadin v. France, the Court highlighted the positive obligations of the States to prevent situations of servitude and forced labour.[3] Especially in the situation of Siliadin, as she was an unaccompanied immigrant, female, and minor, the Court adds that the failed protection has caused France to breach multiple articles of the Convention on the Rights of the Child as well, article 19 (1) “States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse[…] ” and article 32 (1) “States Parties recognize the right of the child to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child's education, or to be harmful to the child's health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development” in particular. Furthermore, the Court analyses the terminology used and its implication, comparing the words “slavery” and “forced labour” to the word “servitude” that was being used by the French government to describe the situation Siliadin was living. On whether Siliadin’s work was “forced or compulsory”, the Court stated that the previously mentioned terms “bring to mind the idea of physical or mental constraint”,[4] and the work is to be “under the menace of any penalty”.[5] Despite not being threatened by any penalty, the Court ruled in that the criterion was met considering that the applicant is a minor in a foreign state, “unlawfully present on French territory and in fear of arrest by the police” and she was promised by the people that were keeping her captive that her status be regularized.[6]

On the concept of slavery, the Court cites the “classic concept” of slavery that can be found in the 1927 Slavery Convention “slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised”. The Court also recognized that the definition cannot be applicable to Ms. Siliadin’s condition because modern-day slavery has different connotations compared to the “classic concept” of slavery. However, the couple holding her captive was found to be exercising a “genuine right of legal ownership”,[7] and reducing her status to that of an object.[8] Furthermore, on the use of the word “servitude”, the French government stated that, although the word was similar to “slavery”, the former “reflected as situation of exploitation which did not require that the victim be objectified to the point of becoming merely another person’s property”.[9] However, considering the case-law on the issue, the Court clarified that for Convention purposes “servitude” needed to be considered as a coerced obligation to provide services, and it has to be linked to the concept of slavery.[10]

In 2010, with the Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia case -the second case found in breach of article 4- the Court clarified that human trafficking falls within the scope of article 4, although the latter only explicitly mentions slavery and forced labour. Therefore, the judgment broadened the original scope of the article, and reiterated the importance of adopting a framework of prevention and protection from human trafficking.[11] The Court explained that human trafficking, is at its core, a threat to human dignity and fundamental freedoms. Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia, is a case concerning a Russian national found dead in Cyprus after moving there with a “cabaret-artiste” visa. The applicant, Mr. Rantsev, is the father of the dead woman and he is complaining that both Cyprus and Russia are responsible for the trafficking of his daughter and the lack of adequate protection of his daughter is the main reason behind her death.[12] The Strasbourg-based Court stated that Cyprus had indeed violated art. 4 of the Convention not only because it failed to properly put in place an appropriate measure to combat human trafficking, but also because the “cabaret-artiste” visa made the country responsible for putting at risk of trafficking the large number of foreign women that went to the island to search for a job. Furthermore, the police officers that interview Ms. Rantseva were not able to protect her despite having enough evidence to start an investigation on the grounds of human trafficking but handed her to the cabaret manager, the person from which she was trying to escape.

Russia was also held accountable of the breach of article 4 of the convention in light of the recruitment taking place in the country of origin of Ms. Rantseva, therefore Russia had the obligation to investigate the trafficking and recruiting circles that contributed to the tragic event. Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia is an important case for the jurisprudence of the ECtHR because it holds the countries accountable for not taking the appropriate measures in preventing the violations of article 4 of the Convention. Furthermore, the Court adds to the definition of modern slavery, stating that “trafficking in human beings, by its very nature and aim of exploitation, is based on the exercise of powers attaching to the right of ownership. It treats human beings as commodities to be bought and sold and put to forced labour, often for little or no payment. […] It involves the use of violence and threats against victims, who live and work under poor conditions”.[13]

A recent case, on the issue of sexual exploitation as well, has also broadened the scope of article 4. In S.M. v. Croatia (2018), a case about a Croatian woman that was forced into prostitution by a former police officer. Once the victim of abuse submitted a report to the police, the authorities failed to respond adequately to the complaint.[14] The Court ruled that the exploitation of prostitution fell within the scope of article 4 of the Convention and reiterated the positive obligation of countries to prevent and protect people from trafficking. Although the Court was pleased about the legal and administrative framework put in place in Croatia regarding trafficking, there were multiple shortcomings during the investigation.[15] The authorities did not take her threat allegations seriously and proceeded ignoring interviewing key witnesses presented by the applicant and that could have testified giving more evidence of the alleged sexual exploitation.[16] In addition, by dismissing her allegations as unreliable, the authorities did not take into account that the applicant could have been suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), hence impeding her to “clearly and consistently relate the circumstances of her exploitation”.[17] In the annex of the judgment, the dissenting opinion of judge Koskelo can be found. The judge explains that he voted against the application admissible because the Court “exceeded the limits of its jurisdictions” and went beyond the scope of the case.[18] Koskelo continued saying that this case would expand the scope of application of Article 4 and criticized his fellow judges on the manner in which they used this case as an occasion to expand the scope of the previously mentioned article.[19] According to the judge, considering “exploitation of prostitution” a violation of article 4 of the Convention would enlarge the scope of the article in a “significant and obscure” manner.[20] Koskelo, in a not-so-veiled manner, has accused his peers of judicial activism.

The inhumane conditions in which migrant field workers live in are now common knowledge.[21] However, the ECtHR has only found one case in violation of article 4 of the Convention, Chowdury and Others v. Greece (2017). The applicants are 42 undocumented Bangladeshi workers subjected to labour exploitation in a strawberry farm in Greece. When the applicants explained their conditions of labour, the authorities found out that they were working twelve (12) hours a day, every day, under the supervision of armed guards, for a wage of 22 euros for seven hours and then 3 euros for each hour extra. However, for multiple months, the migrants did not receive their salary. In addition, they were made to live in squalor, without any access to running water or proper toilets and they slept in makeshift shacks. The applicants (and other migrant workers) decided to go on strike when after not receiving the salary for three months in a row, they saw other migrants being recruited and feared they would get fired without getting their wages. One of the armed guards opened fire injuring 30 workers, and once they arrived at the hospital they were interrogated by the police. The authorities arrest the two employers and two armed guards, being charged of attempted murder and human trafficking. However, the assize court acquitted the charges of human trafficking and only one of the employers and the armed guard who opened fired were convicted of “grievous bodily harm and unlawful use of firearms”. In addition, the judgment of the assize court commuted their prison sentence to financial penalty, and they were ordered to pay a total of 1,500 euros to the 35 workers recognized as victims (which is 43 euros to each of them). The workers appealed to the Court of Cassation as they believed that the charge of human trafficking was dismissed without being examined properly. However, the Court of Cassation sided with the assize court, dismissing the request. When the case was brought to the ECtHR, the Strasbourg Court ruled that there was a violation of article 4, recognizing their situation as human trafficking and of forced labour. The Court explained that the domestic courts identified the applicants’ situation as of servitude because they interpreted the concept of human trafficking in a very restrictive manner. Furthermore, the European Court reiterated that states have to ensure the effectiveness of their judicial proceedings and investigations, being able to identify cases of exploitation and punish possible responsible actors.

The manner in which Greek authorities and Courts have downplayed the case is despicable, especially considering cases of human trafficking and slavery-like conditions are not a new topic.[22] In countries like Italy, the exploitation of migrant field workers from criminal organizations is well-known and has a specific name: caporalato. According to the current minister of Agriculture Teresa Bellanova, the state has to take responsibility towards migrants working in the field, before organized crime takes them in.[23] Mafia’s agricultural cartel is estimated to be worth 24.5 billion euros.[24] Furthermore, Mafia clans are known to be violent against migrants who do not comply with their requests.[25] Nonetheless, Italy’s progress in preventing human trafficking and forced labour perpetrated by organized crime is very low, and after the recent migration crisis, labour exploitation has been on the rise in Italy.[26] A report commissioned by the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee of the European Parliament, focused on the case studies of Spain and Italy, calls for a gender-based approach showing that migrant women working in fields are at high risk of becoming a target of sexual exploitation.[27]

Indeed, out of the 9 cases that were found in breach of article 4 of the Convention, 7 of them had applicants being women. Out of the 9 cases that were found in breach of article 4 of the Convention, 4 of them had applicants being forced into prostitution. Out of the 9 cases that were found in breach of article 4 of the Convention, 8 of them had applicants that were third-country nationals. Since the Siliadin case, the Court, taking into account findings of the Parliamentary Assembly, had already noted that “today’s slaves are predominantly female and usually work in private households, starting out as migrant domestic workers […]”.[28] Despite this clear pattern in which some categories are more vulnerable to modern slavery, according to GRETA reports and proved by the aforementioned cases, countries are not taking into account specific measures to effectively prevent human trafficking and forced labour. Nor are the countries protecting vulnerable categories at high risk of human trafficking.

From 2010 onwards, the Court has been more lenient into finding countries in breach of article 4 (eight cases in one decade), and through its judgments, the scope of the article has been “broadened”. The Convention is a living instrument and it has to be interpreted with a modern-day vision. We tend to think that article 4 of the Convention is a “dead letter” simply because we still find it hard to let our concept of slavery evolve, having a crystallized idea of it up in the hyperuranium. Therefore, the work that the ECtHR is doing in clarifying[29] what falls within the scope of article 4 is fundamental, as the Court is the last resort to restore national injustices.

Some stories of migrants under conditions of forced labour go untold because they lack connections, and most of them will not be able to go before the ECtHR because of bad counseling, considering the lack of financial resources, or because of language (and cultural) barrier. Therefore, being excluded from a fair trial. Siliadin v. France was the first case in which a country was found in breach of art. 4 of the Convention because it was the epitome of modern-day slavery, being the applicant a minor, a woman and an immigrant. In Siliadin’s judgment, in 2005, the Court had illustrated how women and migrants were (and still are) more vulnerable to forced labour, human trafficking and slavery. Yet proper measures to prevent these atrocities have never been adopted by MS, letting these types of abuse to continue.




[1] Abellan Matamoros, C., “Forced labour most prevalent form of modern slavery in Europe, says report”, Euronews, 2019.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Siliadin v. France, No. 73316/01, 2005, parr. 64 – 89.

[4] Ibid, par. 117.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, par. 118.

[7] Ivi,par. 122.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, par. 103.

[10] Ibid, par. 124.

[11] Rantsev v. Cyprus and Russia, No. 25965/04, 2010, parr. 289- 308.

[12] Ibid, parr. 2, 3.

[13] Ibid, par. 281.

[14] S.M. v. Croatia, No. 60561/14, par.

[15] Press Release, “ECHR finds rights violation in case of Croatian woman who alleged she was forced into prostitution”, ECHR 266, European Court of Human Rights, 2018

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] S.M. v. Croatia, No. 60561/14, Annex “Dissenting Opinion of Judge Koskelo”, parr. 2, 3.

[19] Ibid, par. 11.

[20] Ibid, par. 18.

[21] See Ufficio Immigrazione, “Lo sfruttamento lavorativo in agricoltura”, Caritas Italiana, Approfondimenti n.12/15, 2015.

[22] See. Aloisi, S., “Modern slave migrants toil in Italy's tomato fields”, Reuters, 2009. And Fantacuzzi, L., “Bracciante sudanese morto per un colpo di calore in Puglia”, Il Mattino, 2019

[23] Infomigrants, “Fear of mafia exploitations as Italy opens to farm workers”, 2020.

[24] Ibid.

[25] See Castel Volturno Massacre, and Piedimonte A. E., “Napoli. La camorra spara contro immigrati. Ferita bambina di 10 anni”, La Stampa, 2017.

[26] Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings, “Report concerning the implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings by Italy”, Second evaluation round, 2019, par. 79.

[27] Palumbo, L., and Sciubra, A., The vulnerability of women migrant workers in agriculture and the EU: the need for a Human Rights and Gender based approach, FEMM Committee, March 2018.

[28] Siliadin v. France, No. 73316/01, 2005, par. 88.

[29] In contrast to the concept of broadening.


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