Are you being enslaved? | Julia Farrugia Portelli

Human trafficking is a growing phenomenon, and might even be happening in the apartment next door. JULIA FARRUGIA PORTELLI, Parliamentary Secretary for Reforms and Citizenship, outlines the main aims of the human trafficking awareness campaign, launched yesterday

Julia Farrugia Portelli
Julia Farrugia Portelli

Before turning to the educational campaign itself: Malta has often been named in connection with real or suspected human trafficking cases; yet the crime itself is rarely discussed publicly. How much of an issue is it here, to begin with?

Human trafficking is something that, by its own nature, involves different countries. It is estimated that 40.3 million people are trafficked worldwide each year. So all countries, up to a point, will sooner or later have to deal with real or potential cases. Malta is not immune. This is, in fact, the central message of our campaign. Malta is committed to taking action in the fight against human trafficking, and that is what we intend to do. 

Would you give an example of human trafficking in practice? The stereotypical scenario might involve young women enticed and ensnared by prostitution rings, for instance: but is that the only way in which people could be trafficked?

That scenario certainly qualifies as human trafficking; and it accounts for many individual cases. But the definition is much broader. Statistics show that almost 16.7 million people are trafficked for the purpose of ‘regular’ employment. What usually happens is that people are approached, or respond to ads, with an offer of employment in a particular country: for instance, as a hair-dresser, or a waiter, or a carer… but when they get to that country, the contract will be torn up; their passport will be taken away… and those are already the first two signs. You have been promised something, but given something else; and you have been deprived of your liberty…

But how different is that from the case of, for instance, the large numbers of migrants (mostly African, but other nationalities too) who get picked up from roundabouts, and transported to be illegally employed in workplaces? And who end up living in stables…?

What you describe is not necessarily trafficking, however. Not by definition… although obviously you would have to investigate the individual cases to know the full details. But there is a difference between human trafficking, and picking people up from the street to employ them illegally. They’re both illegal, but it’s not necessarily the same crime. Take, for example, the case of an Italian national here with a ‘passaggio di soggiorno’. That agreement only holds good for Italy. So, if someone employs an Italian with a ‘passaggio di soggiorno’, he would be breaking the laws of our country. All the same, that’s not ‘trafficking’. To be trafficking, the victims would have had to be brought here on false pretences. What you’re talking about, however, is still exploitation. If people are employed, and either not paid for the work done, or given only five euros for a full day’s work… that’s exploitation, and it’s illegal. But it’s a different crime.

There is also some confusion between ‘trafficking’ and ‘smuggling’. Can you explain the difference in a few words?

The case of someone coming here from Africa by boat, for example. Is it trafficking? If those people are fleeing from wars with their families… and they paid someone to bring them to Europe by boat… that would be smuggling, not trafficking. But if you paid for that passage, on the promise that someone would meet you to give you a job as a carer, or a domestic helper… when in reality none of that happens, and you find yourself forced to work as a prostitute instead…  that’s trafficking.

It’s a fine line, though, isn’t? Migrants don’t only pay for the Mediterranean passage. Sub-Saharan Africans would have to also pay to be transported to the Libyan coast from their home countries. All would have been ‘promised a better life in Europe’. But many end up abducted and held to ransom; or dumped at sea to drown, or end up in detention centres… isn’t that false pretences, too?

It is still smuggling, though. Not to minimise the crime of smuggling, because they are both serious crimes… and besides, the examples you mention also include kidnapping and murder. The charges would be very, very serious indeed. But still, the transaction will have been different. The human smugglers operating in Africa are transporting their victims to where they can leave for Europe… but they’re not the ones employing them under false pretences when they get to Europe. That’s the basic difference.

Turning to cases of real trafficking, here in Malta. You mentioned ‘carers’ and ‘domestic workers’ as possible examples. But isn’t there also a cultural tendency here to look on foreigners as ‘being here only to do specific jobs’? And isn’t that culture reinforced, when we only see Filipinos looking after children; Africans picking up garbage; Italians serving in restaurants; or Eastern Europeans on building sites?

The reality is complicated, however. There are cases of people being trafficked for those and other reasons. But it doesn’t follow that all foreigners employed as carers, or on construction sites, or in any other legal activity, will have been trafficked. Very often they may have come here themselves, on their own initiative; or ended up here for some other reason. They would not have been enticed here by the employer. Also, you hear of a lot of situations where families – or employers, even in small businesses – would need to hire people, as helpers or employees, and the stark reality is that they find nobody. Just recently I was at a supermarket, and one of the comments I heard was: ‘If you know of anyone interested [in working here], send them along…’ And there is also a new social reality, in that the Maltese now expect a different standard of living. You find more people nowadays who don’t want to work nightshifts, or on weekends, or on public holidays. But can all shops afford to close on Saturdays? No. They have to fend for themselves: they have to find those employees, one way or another.

There is still the danger of exploitation, though...

Yes, that is why we need a mechanism – and we are laying the groundwork for it as we speak – to ward off exploitation. You mentioned the construction sector: what we are aiming for is for all sectors to have a set of protocols – a list of “do’s and don’ts” for workers and employers. That is where we need to go, as a country. We have already introduced a lot of new legislation to this end. It is now illegal, for example, for an employee not to be given a payslip…

I’ve heard of cases where employees were not even given their pay, let alone the payslip…

That is also why it is important also for employees to be aware of their rights. In the coming months, we are hoping to start the mechanism whereby every worker who is given a work permit, also gets a small card telling them what their rights are. For instance: ‘no, employers don’t have the right to take away your passport. If you see any of these indications, call this number. It’s a freephone helpline, confidentiality guaranteed, etc.’ It is a very basic guide to employee’s rights; but it is needed, because in some cases, foreigners will not be aware that they have certain rights here. The reality in their home countries might be very different. There are parts of the world where such people have no rights at all. They would be so accustomed to being treated like dirt, that when they come here, they don’t expect anything different. They might even think it’s ‘normal’ to be treated that way. What they don’t know, however, is that just because they come from places where that is the reality… it doesn’t mean that that is the reality here, too. The reality here is that all people have basic fundamental human rights; and all workers have employees’ rights…

Could it also be that, in some cases, the employers themselves might genuinely not know that they’re even breaking the law… by, for instance, not providing adequate health and safety standards on the workplace, or by not giving payslips, etc.?

I’d say it goes even further than that. Let me give you an example from my own experience. Last year, after I spoke in a discussion about prostitution on the programme ‘Xtra’, a pimp turned up at my office. Very bluntly, he started telling me things like: ‘Yes, I bring girls here… but I always treat them well. I treat them like they’re my own daughters. They live like queens….” After around 40 minutes of him going on about how ‘well he treats his girls’, I asked: ”But do you not charge them anything? Not even for lodging? When a single room in an apartment can be rented out for 700 euros?” He said, “Oh yes, I do charge them a little for rent, and for petrol, and for expenses… but I always drive them everywhere. Even to go shopping… even just to cross the street. I’m always by their side...” So without even realising it, this man was giving me all the indicators that those girls were living in captivity; yet at the same time, to this individual himself… he thought he was ‘treating them well’. So yes, this is why awareness is needed, too.

What is currently being done to raise such awareness, though?

To give one example: last year, I brought over an expert from Scotland Yard to provide training for the employees of Identity Malta. He gave a training course on how to recognise the warning signs, how to deal with specific types of situations, etc… and almost the moment the course was over, they identified 14 victims, who were rescued from similar captivity scenarios...

What would the signs be, from the perspective of Identity Malta employees?

Let’s say someone turns up to apply for a work permit. There’ll be someone standing by who doesn’t even let the applicant speak: like ‘Big Brother’, monitoring everything. He will do all the talking for the applicant, or tell them exactly what to say. There are also health issues – which is why we want to move towards is a situation where people receive similar training, even in health centres. One of those 14 victims was severely malnourished. She hadn’t eaten in days. These are the sort of signs that they will be looking out for.

Some of these signs may be visible to more than just doctors and civil service. Anyone at all might be able to spot a severely malnourished young woman, being ‘escorted’ around by a Big Brother-type thug. What should people do, if they suspect cases of human trafficking?

That is one of the things the educational campaign will be addressing. How can the man in the street be aware, for instance, that the apartment next door might be used for trafficking purposes? There are signs to look out for: are there certain activities going on at strange hours? Are people always accompanied, when they enter or leave… or when they go shopping, or to the bank? Are they afraid to speak when spoken to? The campaign aims to raise awareness of these issues. It will take place in schools, too. We have already embarked on an interesting project: author Trevor Zahra is helping us out with it. The idea is that, ‘not every fairy tale has a happy… conclusion’ – not to say ‘ending’, because of the connotations. But we have to get the message across. Another direction we need to take is that, if there are certain areas that are susceptible to human trafficking – abroad, for instance, you often see campaigns in airports: posters asking, ’Are you being trafficked?’, with a helpline number to call. We have to do something similar here as well. But as a legislator, I want to do more. That is why I started the public consultation process. I want to go before parliament with a draft law that says, for example, that victims of human trafficking will be offered a witness protection programme. This is an area where, in the past, nobody wanted to venture. It runs into millions of euros: in other countries, around 150 million euro a year. But If someone is going to expose an international human trafficking ring… they have to be given a new identity. And they can’t be accommodated in a flat in Gozo, Sliema, etc… because they’d still run the risk of coming into contact with their aggressors. We would need agreements with other countries, so that the person under protection will be relocated overseas: under a new name, with new documents, and with money to cover housing, and so on. It is not easy: least of all, for the witnesses themselves. They would have to avoid use of social media; there will not be able to talk to their own families… in fact, there are several cases where witnesses withdrew from the protection programme, because they couldn’t handle it. So it won’t be easy to introduce.  But we do need to, at least, start talking about these issues. This, too, is part of the awareness we aim to raise.


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