Modern-day slavery

Some workers pay a fortune to come Denmark looking for a better life only to wind up in human bondage

Although Denmark is low on the list of countries with a modern-day slavery problem, there are more than 700 people in the country that are considered slaves by the Global Slavery Index.

While the focus on slavery and forced labour in Denmark has traditionally been on women brought into the country and forced to work in the sex trade, research now includes the high numbers of migrants, including many from eastern Europe, working in the cleaning industry, agriculture and nurseries and as au pairs. The Global Slavery Index report leans heavily on a series of reports published by the Danish Centre against Human Trafficking entitled ‘Human Trafficking for Forced Labour in Denmark?’

That report said that until recently, the most visible form of modern slavery has involved women and children who have been trafficked to Denmark for sexual exploitation. As the government began looking outside of the sex industry, an increasing number of victims were identified in forced labour in other industries. Up until 2009, only one person had been identified as a victim of forced labour, but that number rose sharply with the shift in focus, with one new case being identified every month in 2012. That rate will likely increase as more workers contact the police and other human rights organisations.

READ MORE: Romanian workers systematically exploited in Zealand

Low hours, no pay
In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of foreigners in Denmark working in the cleaning industry, in the green sector (agriculture and nurseries) and as au pairs. In the cleaning industry, nearly 20 percent of the more than 120,000 people employed are foreigners.

The number of au pairs in Denmark has also risen sharply in recent years. Around 4,400 foreigners are currently working as au pairs in Denmark, with nearly 75 percent of those the coming from the Philippines. The au pairs report that they often work for months at a time with no days off. They afraid to confront the families that they work for because they are dependent on them for room and board.

"We think that if you say no, the family will not be good to you, and you are living with them," said Karen, a Philippine au pair.

Many of the immigrants, both legal and illegal, report that they have often paid exorbitant sums to ‘professional facilitators’ and recruitment agencies to come to Denmark and work, some as much as 70,000 kroner.

“They bring you up here, and you’re dependent on them,” Beata, a Polish cleaning woman, told researchers. “All you can do is work more. You can’t go to the police because you’re guilty too in some way when you’re working off the books and don’t have a contract.”

The low wages paid to immigrant workers coupled with paying back the facilitators result in slave-like conditions for workers who end up labouring for no pay for several months in order to cover their costs. Many take on extra work to try to get out from under.

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“It was like he owns me”
Along with long hours and low pay, workers rarely get a day off and often deal with squalid living conditions.

Many of the migrant workers interviewed – particularly from the agriculture sector and the cleaning industry – live in accommodation that the staffing agency or employer found for them. The conditions are often far less than what they were promised.

“There was no heat and it was very cold and when it froze outside the electricity didn’t work,” Sabina, a Romanian nursery worker told researchers. “I wanted to go back to Romania but I had no money.”

Workers said that they often felt completely at the mercy of their employers due to limited language skills and a lack of knowledge of their rights.

“We didn’t have time to eat,” said Beata. “It didn’t matter if it was 10am or 2am, when the employer called, we must be ready…it was like he owns me.”

The government has allocated 85 million kroner toward eradicating modern slavery. 

VIDEO: The story of how a young girl from Moldova wound up abused by human traffickers