Trafficking as a criminal enterprise

“One should make a distinction between trafficking and exploitation. But of course, you do not traffic human beings if you do not intend to exploit them. And then, prosecution of exploitation is rare. You have to provide proofs; the conditions to be acknowledged as a victim of human trafficking are quite strict, and require the victim’s collaboration. But even when a dossier is really well elaborated, with proofs of human trafficking and exploitation, it is extremely difficult in Belgium to have someone condemned. It happens, but the cases are rare. And even then, prison sentences are very low. So yes, making penalties harsher might have a dissuasive effect. But I think you have to hit where it hurts, and that is in their wallet. For many of these traffickers, prison is not a threat; what they fear is the confiscation of their wealth. I have for instance reported on a filière of Turkish people who were exploited in a network of Turkish bakeries. They were in an illegal situation, they had no documents, they were lodged inside the bakeries, they slept on the floor, and they were here since three years. At a certain moment the manager of the bakeries was arrested, and it appeared he worked for an organisation in Turkey. So when he was arrested, his main concerns were: shall my buildings, my cars, my accounts be confiscated? That was what bothered him, but spending some time in prison? No.

It would help if it would be possible to confiscate possessions in the countries of origin. For instance, there is a convention between Belgium and Romania that would allow that, but one doesn’t recall to it, and – I have been there – in Romania the people who traffic and exploit these young Romanian beggars and burglars, they live in villas of one or two million euro, they drive a Porsche or Ferrari, so if you could touch them there, I think that might help.

In the confection system, the same. I have been present at police raids on illegal confection ateliers in Brussels. It was hallucinating. The police had the keys to the atelier; they said ‘Well, we come over here every two months’. We got into the atelier, and there were about thirty workers, Syrians, Iraqi, Jordanian, … They were all in Belgium without permit. There were sewing machines, and there were clothes that were finished. The police took the clothes, and they were all carrying logos of brands and shops in the Rue Neuve in Brussels. These shops and brands do not order their confection to the illegal ateliers, but for instance in the sales periods, they might realise that they are missing a thousand jeans or a thousand t-shirts. So they go see a manager whom they know is able to provide them with thousand jeans at a low price and in a very short period of time. That manager is absolutely regular: registered at the Chamber of Commerce, with a vat-number, etc. The manager will make them a price, one at the level of Vietnam or Laos. The people of the large chains and brands know of course how comes this man is able to offer a price of 80% below the market price. But as long as they themselves do not get involved in the production itself, they will not be prosecuted. ‘Was he using clandestine workers in an illegal atelier? How could I know that?’ So the only person who can be prosecuted is the fraudulent manager. Now that manager will go bankrupt. I don’t know how the situation is now, but when I was investigating on this, there were 4000 bankruptcies a year in Brussels and one magistrate to investigate them. At the raid, police told me ‘We don’t need to register the numbers of the sewing machines; we have already seen them so many times’. So the clandestine workers are expelled, the manager will go bankrupt and one won’t be able to recuperate values, the authorities are going to publicly sell the sewing machines, the organisation will buy them again via another straw man, and the police tell me: ‘In two months we will come back here, we will open the door with the key, and we will find the same sewing machines, etc.’. As long as we cannot prosecute the bidders, the ones who order goods at prices of which they know it is impossible to produce legally, as long as you cannot touch them in their wallet, there will come no end to labour exploitation.

But as long there is a demand on the market for these cheap products that are made in exploitation, there will be an offer. So it’s not just a matter of the offer, there’s also the demand side.

Yes, that’s true. As long as there is a demand for arms or for drugs, there will be an offer of arms or drugs. That’s a social question and one of education. But my concern is that there are unsufficient means to tackle the exploitation at the side of the offer. It is only when we will be able to touch the organisers in the home countries in their wallet, to be able to confiscate their houses or their Ferrari, that we will be able to hurt them.”

This is an excerpt of an interview I conducted in French with Frédéric Loore, a journalist at the Brussels desk of Paris Match. For years he has been investigating and reporting trafficking of human beings with the intent of labour exploitation. The translation was made as a contribution to the European research project TRACE – Trafficking as a criminal enterprise. I further collaborated on a criminological work package in that project, containing macro and micro analyses of human trafficking.

Frédéric Loore has also published Marque ou crève, about the trade in young African football players.