Combating labour exploitation and ensuring the protection of the fundamental social rights of undocumented migrant workers in Europe through trade union action.


This project aims to raise awareness in the European trade union movement about the phenomenon of labour exploitation of undocumented migrant workers and how it is connected to the current economic system and labour market realities. It wants to provide ETUC member organisations and trade union activists with suggestions and good practice examples on how to take appropriate action against labour exploitation at all relevant levels, and to ensure that trade unions reach out to undocumented migrants to support them in getting recognition for and enforcing their fundamental social rights at work, including the right to freedom of association.

 By doing so, the future actions of ETUC and affiliates will contribute to develop some of the political priorities established by the Stockholm Program, such as protection of fundamental rights and human dignity, with a special focus on protecting vulnerable people against labour exploitation, and  their access to justice.

 Background of the project

 Undocumented workers are among the most vulnerable and exploited workers in Europe. They are often victims of labour exploitation: unpaid wages, no holidays, dangerous conditions, uncompensated workplace injuries, obliged to work for long working hours suffering unlawful deductions from pay in an environment in which health and safety conditions are ignored; often forced to stay with their employer, especially in cases of trafficked workers, virtual absence of social protection, denial of freedom of association and workers' rights, discrimination and xenophobia, as well as social exclusion.  They work and live in the constant fear of expulsion.  

In some countries, irregular migrant workers may face situations like sexual and physical harassment, debt bondage, retention of identity documents and threats of denunciation to the authorities, without effective access to legal protection. Undocumented workers who try to stand up for their rights often face physical, racist and immigration-related threats and retaliation.

 EU migration policies are putting the emphasis on high skilled migrants. However, the reality shows that migrant workers - millions of them irregular migrants - are mainly concentrated in low-skilled occupations such as agriculture, construction, hotels and restaurants, domestic work – cleaning and caring services. The jobs they carry out are often “dirty, demeaning and dangerous” jobs ("3D-jobs"). This fact makes the protection of their rights even more difficult.

 The absence of legal channels for migration for low-skilled/low paid work creates a vicious circle of lack of rights and fear for expulsion, leading to easily exploitable workforce and potential enormous profits, and an increasing practice of subcontracting chains by which big enterprises avail themselves of cheap products and services.[1] One clear example of this is the price of tomatoes and other agricultural products that can be sold by great retail chains for (too) low prices because they are often produced and picked by workers who are paid salaries far below the level of a fair (living) wage.

 In many EU member states, negative sentiments against immigrants - both regular and irregular - are increasing among workers and citizens. Fears for the potential undercutting of wages and working conditions and of competition for scarce resources (public housing, social benefits, etc.) are being exacerbated by the economic crisis. The existence of irregular migration and lack of adequate policies to deal with this phenomenon, in addition to a situation in which Member States (MS’s) are mostly focussing on criminalisation of irregular migration and repressive measures, leads to a potentially dangerous increase of racism and xenophobia.

In ETUC’s view, the best way to tackle this issue is to put an end to the vicious circle, in which the lack or rights reinforces the lack of protection which as such reinforces exploitation:  “…the protection of human rights and labour standards for migrant workers - whatever their nationality or legal status - is the top priority if the EU genuinely wants to address the exploitation of irregular migrants. There must be a recognition that every person - with or without proper documents  - is to be valued and respected as a human being and should be entitled to the basic human rights and minimum labour standards, including decent working conditions, freedom of association and protection against forced labour.”[2]

The lack of recognition and implementation of these rights contributes to the level of exploitation of undocumented migrant workers.

However, undocumented migrant workers are entitled to fundamental labour and social rights and protection.  At the EU level, the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union and its fundamental labour and social rights apply to every person in the EU territory, regardless of their legal status. Also, international instruments of the Council of Europe recognise fundamental rights to migrant workers[3]. The right to fair labour conditions, the freedom of association and the right to organise, the right to a minimum subsistence and the right to legal aid are entitled to undocumented migrant workers through these international instruments. Also  the UN and ILO Conventions on human rights and core labour standards, as well as the specific conventions on migrants, recognise indeed a set of minimum standards that should apply to all workers, national and migrants, documented and undocumented: freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour; the effective abolition of child labour; the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.

 The forthcoming Action Plan of the European Commission for the implementation of the Stockholm Program, and its implementation in the next 5 years, provide an opportunity to reflect on better strategic paths by which the problem of irregular migration and the protection of undocumented migrants can be linked with a Europe of fundamental rights for all.

 Trade union organizations should play a central role in fighting for protection and equal treatment of all migrant workers, regardless of their legal status, in respect of access to social protection, combating labour exploitation and precariousness, promoting fundamental labour and social rights for all migrants, providing for bridges out of irregularity and access to justice.

 Trade unions can play a key role in providing information and support, developing appropriate ways and instruments to reach out to these workers in solidarity, and being visible, available and accessible for them. This is only possible if the current membership of trade unions understands the importance of countering the language and practices of exclusion and xenophobia, and of bridging the gap with the ‘outsiders’. History has shown that solidarity between the organised and unorganised workers and inclusive trade union policies and strategies can provide all workers with better protection.

[1] ILO Report: Towards a fair deal for migrant workers in the globlal economy. Confrep-Report VI-2004-03-0012-1

[2] ETUC calls for enforcement of minimum labour standards and decent working conditions as a priority, July 2006

[3] Council of Europe: European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and the European Convention on the Legal Status of Migrant Workers




Irregular Migration in Europe: EU policies and the Fundamental Rights Gap

Economic and social context of the irregular migration of unskilled labour in Europe: specific features

Fundamental and Human Rights Framework: Protecting Irregular Migrants in the EU

Fighting against exploitation of the workforce and for stricter application of labour standards, access to justice and cooperation with labour inspectorates

Ensuring fair wages and working conditions for undocumented migrant workers in Europe: Are fair trade strategies the answer?

The impacts of irregular migration