NEW YORK—The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has ordered Greece to pay a group of migrant Bangladeshi agricultural workers €588,000 in compensation, in its first ever ruling dealing with the exploitation of irregular migrant labor.
The case, Chowdury and others v. Greece, was brought by 42 workers following violence directed against strawberry pickers in Nea Manolada in the Peloponnese in 2013, after they protested and their employers' failure to pay wages for several months. More than 30 workers were injured after armed guards at the site started shooting at the protestors.
Subsequently, the employers involved were charged by Greek prosecutors with labor trafficking, but acquitted because the workers were physically free to leave the farm. The two guards who opened fire were convicted of causing dangerous bodily harm, but their sentences were commuted to fines.
The workers then took their complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, with the support of the Open Society Justice Initiative and the Greek Council for Refugees.
The court ruled on March 30 that the workers' situation had become one of forced labor under Article 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights, when their employer had refused to pay back wages unless they continued working and because they feared arrest and deportation if they left the job.
The Greek police knew of the situation but failed to act. The ECHR ruled that the police and Greek court had failed in their duty to protect workers from forced labor and to punish those responsible.
The court upheld the workers claims for compensation, ordering the Greek Government to pay the hospitalized workers €16,000 each and the other workers €14,000 Euros. The total award of compensation is €588,000.
The total award of damages is one of the largest ever made by the European Court.
Previous migrant cases involving forced labor under Article 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights concerned children forced to work for relatives and people tricked into working in situations of prostitution.
Morshed Chowdury, one of the workers who brought the complaint, said:
“We are very pleased and excited by today’s judgment. The Greek court’s earlier acquittal of the farmers for the violations was a great disappointment to us. We hope that the Greek government will learn from our experiences and recognize our important role in the Greek society."
Vasilis Kerasiotis, attorney for the applicants, and legal director of the Greek Council for Refugees said:
“The 2013 events in Manolada shocked Greek society and shone a light on the vulnerability of irregular migrant workers to exploitation. Today’s ruling brings justice to the victims of those crimes. The Greek government must prevent further harm by introducing long-term residence permits for migrant farm workers.”
Simon Cox, attorney for the applicants and migration lawyer at the Open Society Justice Initiative said:
“This case shows how employers use the threat of migration control to exploit irregular migrant workers and requires Government action to end this. Governments must end this advantage by ensuring all workers can report abuse and seek the protection of police and courts, without this leading to deportation.”
The Open Society Justice Initiative uses law to protect and empower people around the world, in support the objectives of the Open Society Foundations. This litigation before the ECHR is part of a broad effort by Open Society to advocate and support vulnerable migrants and refugees.