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Labour exploitation

Last updated: 20.09.2022
  • Labour exploitation is forced labour in violation of the rules of working and rest time.
  • Another indication of labour exploitation is knowingly providing employees with false information about working conditions.
  • A frequent form of labour exploitation is the establishment of debt bondage, i.e. withholding wages.

What is labour exploitation?

People’s freedom to choose a profession they like, the country they want to work in and their freedom to decide whether to establish an employment relationship or not means greater mobility of labour, not only domestically but also across national borders. Across all this, it is important to remember honest labour where working conditions correspond to national and international requirements.

Although the principles of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights are respected even today, there are increasingly more cases of the deliberate provision of false information about working conditions, threats and intimidation regarding non-payment of wages or turning in illegal foreign employees to the authorities, illegal withholding of wages or inhumane working and living conditions. These are all indicative of labour exploitation. In the most severe cases, we are talking about labour exploitation in the sense of human trafficking, meaning free vs. forced employees.

The ILO (2012) presents 11 possible indicators of forced labour:

  • Abuse of vulnerability of the employee.
  • Deception, e.g. knowingly providing false information about the working conditions.
  • Restriction of movement of employee, including, for example, being locked up, continuous monitoring of the movement of employee, or unreasonable restriction of movement.
  • Social isolation, including, for example, prohibiting or preventing victims from having contact with their families and seeking help.
  • Use of physical and/or sexual violence.
  • Intimidation and threats, including, for example, threats of loss of wages or denunciation to the immigration authorities.
  • Retention of identity documents.
  • Withholding or non-payment of wages.
  • Debt bondage.
  • Abusive working and living conditions.
  • Excessive overtime.

It is not always clear whether an individual case should be identified as labour exploitation or even as human trafficking for the purpose of forced labour. Many authors (Lisborg 2012, Skrivankova 2010, etc.) have observed that the work experiences of employees range from honest labour to extreme forced labour. Representing labour exploitation as a continuum helps us to better understand the complexity of the phenomenon. In the case of honest labour (situation 1A in the Figure), employees are free to enter and terminate employment relationships and the working conditions meet the national and international standards. This is not labour exploitation. In the case of situations at the other end of the continuum (marked with E in the Figure), employees are not free, they are imprisoned, abducted or they are forced in exploitative labour relationships by violent or other methods. Such cases must be regarded as severe exploitation – exemplary situations of human trafficking illustrate how labour exploitation is not a permanent situation but can change depending on the degree of freedom and coercion of employees.


What is human trafficking

Human trafficking is sometimes the prerequisite or result of labour exploitation. Human trafficking is a criminal offence with the purpose of exploitation of other people by traffickers or enabling other people to do so. Human trafficking involves both national and international activities. Therefore, human trafficking does not necessarily involve crossing borders and can occur internally. Human traffickers can use deceit, threats, physical violence, the victim’s need of assistance or other methods to lure victims.

When a person, including for the purposes of economic gain, is placed in a situation where they are forced to marry, work under abnormal conditions, engage in prostitution, beg, commit a crime or other duties reluctantly then labour exploitation has taken on the dimensions of human trafficking.

Likewise, keeping a person in such a situation by means of deprivation of liberty, violence, fraud, threat of harm, exploitation of their dependence on another person, helplessness or vulnerability, means that labour exploitation has turned into human trafficking.

Pursuant to section 133 of the Penal Code, human trafficking is a criminal offence. See more:

How to prevent labour exploitation?

Every entrepreneur, employer as well as the employees themselves can prevent labour exploitation.

As an entrepreneur:

  • As a contracting entity, establish conditions for tenderers that eliminate labour exploitation and human trafficking, and that value the creation of a safe and healthy working environment.
  • Verify the background of the company whose service you are purchasing or with whom you are planning to cooperate.
  • Show interest in your entire contracting chain.
  • Show interest in the people who create value for your company, i.e. how they came to Estonia (or another country), whether they have freedom of movement and a place of residence, whether their employment is registered and wages paid.
  • Care and take action when you see that someone might need help. Ask for advice from the victim support counsellors of the Estonian National Social Insurance Board or from the Labour Inspectorate. If necessary, inform the police.

As an employee:

  • Check the background of your future employer through public media channels, such as whether the company is registered, have they paid taxes and do they have an official website.
  • Know that you are not required to pay the employer or intermediary for the job.
  • Always prefer employment contracts to contracts under the Law of Obligations Act (e.g. an authorisation agreement) and know that an employment relationship under an employment contract provides you greater social guarantees.
  • Read the employment contract before signing it in order to make sure that it includes the previously discussed working conditions.
  • You have the right to request a written employment contract from your employer and your employer is obliged to give it to you.
  • Know that your employer does not have the right to withhold costs for accommodation, transport, working clothing, etc. from your wages.
  • Know that your employer has an obligation to follow the working and rest time rules provided in the valid Employment Contracts Act of Estonia.
  • Know that, as a rule, your employer cannot force you to work overtime against your will.
  • Know that your employer does not have the right to threaten you or exploit your vulnerable situation (as a parent, foreigner, etc.) in order to force you to work under inhumane working conditions.
  • Know that your employer does not have the right to hold onto your identity documents (ID card, passport).
  • Know that you always have the right to go to the labour dispute committee or court against your employer (e.g. for unpaid wages).
  • Know that you always have the right to contact the Labour Inspectorate for help.

As an employer:

  • Perform the obligations arising from the employment relationship in a timely manner (payment of wages etc.).
  • Avoid unreasonably long working days, including shifts.
  • Follow the rules for daily and weekly rest periods.
  • Follow the rules established for employment relationships.
  • Check the background of subcontracting companies.
  • Prevent labour disputes – discuss all working conditions included in the employment contract with the candidate.
  • By paying fair wages, you will be the first choice of employees and job seekers.
  • Know that compliance with the rules of occupational health and safety applies to all employees, including foreign labour.

Where to seek help?

Are you being deceived, manipulated, forced to carry out work that you do not consent to, lured into prostitution, subjected to debt bondage, or are the agreements concluded with you being violated, have your documents been taken away, or are you just confused and do not know what to do? 

If you suspect human trafficking, seek advice from the human trafficking prevention and victim helpline 660 7320 on working days 8.30–17.00. You can receive around-the-clock advice and support from the emergency call number 112.

Victim support helpline 116 006 offers around-the-clock crisis counselling, provides information on your rights and the help available and puts you in contact with appropriate specialists. From abroad, the Estonian victim support helpline is available at +372 614 7393.

You can find additional information on the victim support website of the Social Insurance Board