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31 Aug 2023

Businesses must implement human rights due diligence to protect displaced Ukrainian workers from abuse, say advocates

In August 2023, the HEUNI Institute released a webinar, ‘Patterns of Exploitation: Understanding Human Trafficking Risks related to the war in Ukraine’. The webinar explores trafficking and labour exploitation risks of Ukrainian workers within Ukraine and in neighbouring states. The webinar also explores the roles of states and the private sector to reduce the risk of abuse.

The webinar includes presentations from speakers from HEUNI, the International Organisation for Migration Regional Office in Vienna, La Strada Ukraine, Edinburgh Napier University, and La Strada International.

Heather Komenda (IOM) noted the risk of trafficking is exacerbated due to intersecting factors, including poverty, marginalisation, financial exclusion, irregular migration status, among other vulnerabilities. Conflict and displacement catalyse these risks. Komenda notes that factors that elicit heightened trafficking risks, including forced displacement, high humanitarian need, socioeconomic stress, and social fragmentation, are present in Ukraine. Both IOM and La Strada Ukraine’s speaker, Kateryna Cherepakha, emphasised that the risk of trafficking may increase and thus be revealed only with time, as capacities and resources are depleted and the response to displacement is scaled down.

Kiril Sharapov, Associate Professor of Applied Sciences, explored his upcoming research on the normalisation of labour exploitation within capitalism, which he compares to overly sensationalised anti-trafficking narratives. The speaker notes increases in the number of trafficked persons in Ukraine and surrounding countries have been minimal, and argues there is a need to focus more on labour abuse. The speaker highlights survey research by the Fundamental Rights Agency that found 30% of respondents who worked in the EU since they have left Ukraine experienced some form of exploitation at work. The speaker also highlights how labour protections within Ukraine have been stripped since the outbreak of war.

Suzanne Hoff, from La Strada International, sheds light on the need for companies to implement human rights due diligence on the risks of modern slavery and labour exploitation for Ukrainian displaced workers. Hoff notes that businesses should take into account a number of labour rights risks that Ukrainian workers are vulnerable too, including:

  • Exploitative recruitment practices, including false job advertisements, minimal oversight of recruitment agencies, and the payment of recruitment fees creating conditions of dependence and heightened vulnerability.
  • Safety concerns relating to both the transport and accommodation of Ukrainian workers, including poor living conditions and isolation.
  • Malpractices in employment conditions, including wage theft, lower payments to Ukrainians in comparison to other nationalities, a lack of employment contracts or contracts that are not translated into Ukrainian, and payments below the minimum wage.
  • Workers have reported working excessive hours, not being paid overtime, not being allowed leave or breaks, and verbal and physical abuse, which she notes applies to both Ukrainians and more generally to the poor working conditions experience by many migrant workers in Europe.

The speaker also notes that around 50% of Ukrainians have not registered as refugees and are therefore not legally allowed to work. Others left Ukraine prior to the outbreak of war, either as undocumented workers or on temporary contracts, and have since become undocumented and therefore more vulnerable to abuse.