Friday, February 15, 2013

Slave wages for migrant workers from Cameroon in Sweden's forestry sector

I have read about countless human rights violations, but few have hit very close to home like the story of my compatriots, Cameroonians, lured to Sweden by fraudulent work contracts and the promise of decent work and decent pay only to find themselves in an abusive situation of exploitation for labour purposes in the hands of a rogue Swedish employer in the forestry sector.

In its 2012 Global Estimate on Forced Labour, the International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that 20.9 million people are victims of forced labour globally - working jobs which they were forced or deceived into and which they cannot leave freely. A group of Cameroonians deceived into migrating to Sweden to plant trees fall in this category.

A report by Svt tells the story of migrant workers from Cameroon misled by a false contract of employment to travel to Talvelsjö, a locality in Umeå in northern Sweden - where they were forced by circumstances to engage in back-breaking labour for slave wages. The men were allegedly deceived and exploited by a Swedish man identified as Niklas Gotthardsson, owner of a company called Skogsnicke AB.

Slave wages

The workers were reportedly contracted to plant trees for Gotthardsson's company for a fixed monthly salary of 18.500 Swedish kronors (about 2,900 US dollars), but upon arrival in Sweden their contracts were changed and they weren't paid as agreed. According to Svt, they were paid 0.2288 Swedish kronors/plant under a new contract. That's about 0.036 US dollars/plant or 0.027 euros/plant.

They were forced to accept the new deal because they had no other option in a foreign land - where they reportedly knew no one other than their employer. They planted thousands of trees a day in numerous localities in northern Sweden.

One of the workers tells reporters that he was paid only 6000 kronors (about 954 US dollars) a month under the new contract. A far cry from what he was offered before leaving Cameroon.

Threats, insufficient food and sleep

Those who complained were threatened by business owner Niklas Gotthardsson. The employer provided accommodation for the workers: one room and one toilet for 10 people. According to one of the workers, Ndjomo Denis, they didn't have sufficient sleep or enough food.

The men were trapped at the mercy of Gotthardsson.

The video that shines light on a shocking tale of exploitation for labour purposes is largely in Swedish, with segments in English and French. WATCH.

In my view, the case has hallmarks of human trafficking for labour exploitation and should be investigated and tried as such. The workers were deceived, exploited for labour purposes, paid slave wages, threatened and left in a vulnerable position as undocumented migrants in Sweden. The architect of their suffering should be held to account.

Shared blame

While Gotthardsson is largely responsible for exploitation, Swedish authorities, in my opinion, share part of the blame for leaving migrant workers at the mercy of an employer without information about their rights and how to seek help in case of labour rights violations.

The government of Cameroon also shoulders part of the blame. Endemic corruption and decades of bad governance has left scores of Cameroonians vulnerable to exploitation by potential modern-day "slave owners" like Niklas Gotthardsson. Governments have a duty to protect their citizens, but migrant workers from Cameroon are stranded in Sweden with no word or assistance from their government. This speaks volumes about lack of commitment by a government to serve and protect its people from abuse.

Corporate Social Responsibility

Gotthardsson's company - Skogsnicke AB - is a subcontractor of Swedish forestry giants SCA and Holmen. Both corporations have denied responsibility for the exploitation although the workers planted trees on their land. [Source]

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) requires corporations and companies to ensure that human rights, national laws, international standards and ethical norms are respected all through the supply chain. By subcontracting a company that violates Swedish law and international human rights and labour rights standards, SCA and Holmen are socially irresponsible corporations - in my opinion. The corporations have a corporate social duty to ensure that all their contractors respect human rights and labour laws. It's socially irresponsible to fail to do so.

Niklas Gotthardsson is reportedly under investigation by police and Swedish immigration office.

As of the time of writing, Sweden has not signed or ratified the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families.

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