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Men as victims of forced labour: Labour migration in times of pandemics

CAROLA LINGAAS  |  20 JUNE 2020  | ISSUE #10
(Hannah) Carola Lingaas S.jpg

Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced us to close our borders, the world was characterised by globalisation and mobility between countries and continents. In the European Union, the principle of free movement resulted in high mobility among its citizens. People from the poorer Eastern countries sought their luck in the richer West. Migrant workers came in large numbers: some were employed legally, others found undeclared jobs. Their lives were already in crisis before they were shaken by a virus, exacerbating their fragile social and economic position. For them, migration meant work, work meant income, and income meant a livelihood for their extended family back home. This article gives a voice to a marginalised group of migrants: men who are victims of forced labour. Interviews with 15 men, who received assistance in a shelter at a secret address in Norway, give us insight into their dire situation.


‘The police officer from the section of human trafficking told me that I don’t have the face of a victim’, Peter said. The men are not only victims of forced labour; they are also victims of the misconception that the exploitation of women in prostitution is the only form of trafficking. Globally, there are three times as many victims of forced labour as victims of sex trafficking. In the private sector, 42% of victims of forced labour, or 6.72 million people, are men. In focusing primarily on female victims of sexual exploitation, the public, media, police, courts, and researchers reveal a gender bias.


Peter accepted harsh working conditions in the kitchen of a restaurant. The promised salary was better than what he could earn back home. Peter soon realised that he was worse off than anticipated: he shared a filthy room with several co-workers, for which an exorbitant rent was charged. The working hours increased and the salary decreased, creating a vicious circle: Peter worked hard, hoping to receive full payment, while having insufficient funds to return home. His manager retained his salary in an account inaccessible to Peter. Threats became increasingly common, and Peter feared he would lose all his earnings if he complained. Quitting did not seem an option. He was trapped in what felt like a prison without bars: unable to administer his earnings, he had no means to leave Norway. Although the borders were still open, Peter could not return home.


‘The police don’t care because I am a migrant’, said another interviewee. Migrants are particularly vulnerable to exploitation for forced labour, since they often do not know the local language; lack a supporting network to consult; and are unaware of domestic laws, their rights, and how to enforce them. Moreover, male migrants are often met with an expectation to provide for their families at home. All the interviewees had come to Norway for work, and any salary was better than no salary. Their traffickers, fully aware of these expectations, exploited the men’s vulnerability.


Trafficking and forced labour are severe violations of human rights. The political, social, and legal focus, however, has been one-sided on women and children, foremost as victims of sexual exploitation. The Palermo Protocol to the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime mentions women and children seven times, while men as victims of trafficking are not even acknowledged. Their legal protection in Europe is weak too: out of 62,000 judgments, the European Court of Human Rights has discussed human trafficking in only 14 cases. ‘No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour’, article 4(2) of the European Convention of Human Rights declares. Yet, it is remarkable that the Court has found a breach of this provision in merely five cases, making the jurisprudence on forced labour insignificant. The low number of judgments also influences the legal development at the national level and negatively affects the victims.


What then are Peter’s chances of national prosecution? The statistics for Norway draw a picture of weak legal protection for (male) victims of forced labour. The majority of cases (77%) concern the exploitation of women for prostitution. This confirms the claim of several international studies that women are seen as the ‘iconic victims’ [1]. In 2018, of 45 cases only 7 were prosecuted. But why are there so few cases? By continuously adapting their means of exploitation, the traffickers knowingly bypass the law. Furthermore, anti-trafficking campaigns have largely focused on women forced into prostitution. These campaigns also affect the prioritisation of the police and courts who one-sidedly investigate and adjudicate cases of forced prostitution.


Who are these men exploited for forced labour? There is a lack of awareness that trafficking victims are not a uniform group, but rather an amalgam of individual destinies. The interviewees were unemployed men from poorer areas in Eastern Europe. However, they were by no means a homogenous group: aged between 19 to 63 years, some had university degrees, some came to Norway in search of adventures and work, some had familial obligations, while others did not. The shared characteristic was their willingness to migrate for work. Their livelihood depended on this income. They were labour migrants who had become victims of forced labour. Despite open borders, the men were caught in an involuntary immobility.


How can we help these men? Researchers have to fill the existing research gap and gender bias on human trafficking, particularly with regard to human trafficking of men for forced labour. New research on men has to be widely disseminated to the public, media, police, and courts. To date, few data sets exist that report male victims, because most research focuses on female victims of sexual exploitation: of 651 articles in legal journal only 3% researched men, and adult men were the focus of only one article. Most importantly, however, is a gender-neutral interpretation of the law to encompass all victims of forced labour: women, children – and men.


The interviewees had built their lives and hopes on the freedom of movement in Europe. The men’s dreams of successfully making a living abroad were first shattered when traffickers coerced them to perform labour. The traffickers restricted the men’s freedom of movement by withholding their wages, by means of intimidations, threats and fraudulent debts. Then, the pandemic revoked whatever freedom the men still had left. COVID-19 played into the hands of the traffickers: their victims could not leave, even if they wanted to. With borders closed, airports shut down, flights cancelled, and travel bans, the men now were trapped. They were unable to get home, rejoin their loved ones, and find other work. 


As victims of forced labour, the men were in limbo long before the pandemic. The current crisis, however, led not only to an abolishment of their mobility, but also to a violation of numerous human rights: the principles of dignity and equality, the right to family, the freedom of movement and the right to leave a country. Now that Europe is gradually opening up again, the men will finally be able to return home. What awaits them at home? They will find their families, but also a collapsed economy and even fewer possibilities to earn a living. The pandemic and its economic consequences will force the men out of their home country again, into an uncertain future where they as migrants resume the role of one of Europe’s most marginalised social groups.


Notes and references

[1] Jones, Samuel Vincent. 2010. ‘The Invisible Man: The Conscious Neglect of Men and Boys in the War on Human Trafficking’. Utah Law Review 2010(4), 1143-1188; Hebert, Laura. 2016. ‘Always Victimizers, Never Victims: Engaging Men and Boys in Human Trafficking Scholarship’. Journal of Human Trafficking 2(4), 281-296; Radeva Berket, Mariyana. 2015. ‘Labour exploitation and trafficking for labour exploitation—trends and challenges for policy-making’. ERA Forum 16, 359–377.

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Carola Lingaas

Carola is an Associate Professor of Law at VID Specialized University in Oslo (Norway). She holds a PhD in international law. Her research interests include human rights law and international criminal law at the intersection of law and social sciences. Before joining academia, she worked for several years with the Red Cross. LinkedIn:

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