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Major shortcomings in government initiatives to combat labour exploitation

Government initiatives to combat labour exploitation have major shortcomings. The shortcomings exist in all parts of the system, and are mainly due to the fact that the Government has not given the government agencies a mandate and responsibilities to counteract the problem.

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Exploitation of labour is a serious and growing problem in society. It is mainly foreign labour that is affected by such things as unreasonably low wages, very long working days, dangerous work environments or poor accommodation. Moreover, it fuels other criminality, and can lead to serious businesses being eliminated through the distortion of competition.

The Swedish National Audit Office has audited government initiatives to combat labour exploitation. The audit shows that this work has shortcomings in all respects. The shortcomings are mainly due to the fact that the Government has neither given the government agencies a mandate nor clear responsibilities to counteract labour exploitation.

The Swedish NAO notes, among other things, that the existing regulations do not provide good protection against exploitation. It is not forbidden for an employer to charge for an employment contract, reclaim wages from an employee or to allow employees to live in poor conditions.

Government agencies’ checks rarely lead to help for exposed workers. The police meet potential victims of labour exploitation when they check work permits, but seldom pass on cases for investigation into human trafficking. Several agencies carry out joint inspections against crime in working life, but do not check the employees’ work situation.

There is also a lack of easily accessible information to foreign workers about their rights and where they can turn to get support if problems arise.

“A fundamental problem is that no government agency has an overview of who the victims are and how many there are. Without knowledge, it is difficult for the Government and its agencies to design effective measures," says Auditor General Helena Lindberg.

Although the legislation was tightened in 2018, it has not resulted in more employers being punished for human trafficking for forced labour or human exploitation.

“Few cases lead to prosecution, and altogether there have been only three convictions in the last fifteen years. The risk of conviction is almost non-existent,” says Yvonne Thorsén, project leader for the audit.

Recommendations in brief

The Swedish NAO considers that the Government needs to take a comprehensive approach to combat labour exploitation. As part of this, one agency should be given an overall responsibility to coordinate the work, appropriately the Swedish Work Environment Authority, which already has access to the country’s workplaces and has expertise in the field of work environment.

The Swedish NAO further recommends that the Government:

  • give the agencies in this area a clear remit and mandate
  • prepare an action plan to concentrate measures and enable follow-up
  • ensure that appropriate agencies prepare a support and protection process adapted to victims, and information on the right to good working conditions and where victims can turn
  • investigate how groups at risk of labour exploitation can obtain better opportunities to claim their wages and be given the right to a good standard of accommodation
  • investigate whether agencies should supervise working conditions for foreign labour in sectors with an increased risk of labour exploitation.

The Swedish NAO recommends that the Swedish Police Authority:

  • ensure that everyone involved in workplace inspections receives training on labour exploitation and that there are procedures for how potential victims should be supported.

See the report for full recommendations.

Labour exploitation in brief

Labour exploitation implies exploiting labour through, for example, very low wages, unreasonably long working hours and a poor working environment. A person who exploits another person for work under clearly unreasonable conditions can be sentenced for trafficking in human beings for forced labour or human exploitation under Chapter 4, Sections 1a and b of the Swedish Criminal Code (1962:700).

Press contact: Olle Castelius, phone: +46 8-5171 40 04.

Presskontakt: , telefon: 08-5171 42 06.


Updated: 20 January 2021

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