The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has issued a significant judgment vindicating the rights of a group of migrant strawberry pickers who were shot at by their employers after demanding back pay. The ECtHR found that Greece had breached Article 4.2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), which prohibits forced labour, and failed in its obligation to prevent human trafficking. Greece has been ordered to pay damages of up to €16,000 each per claimant, one of the largest awards ever made in the ECtHR.
The claim was brought by 42 Bangladeshi and Pakistani migrants who had been working on Greek strawberry farms in southern Peloponnese without work permits. Some worked on the farms permanently, while others were engaged in seasonal work. The workers were housed in makeshift huts, with no running water or toilet facilities. The farmers who organised the strawberry-pickers promised to pay wages of €22 for 7 hours work, minus €3 a day for food. However, they threatened the workers with detention and deportation when they sought back pay and, when 30 of the workers staged a protest in 2013 demanding payment, the group was shot at by the farmers. Several were critically injured and some were left unable to work.
When the case came before the Greek criminal courts, the farmers involved were convicted of dangerous bodily harm and illegal use of firearms, for which they were sentenced to up to 14 years’ imprisonment. However, the defendants were acquitted of human trafficking, on the basis that this had not been established on the facts as the conditions were known to the workers when they started working at the farms. Counsel for the farmers sought leave to appeal on the human trafficking ground, arguing that the court had not properly examined the vulnerability of migrant workers to exploitation, but this was refused. This decision was denounced by human rights groups within Greece.
Upon coming before the ECtHR, the Grand Chamber held that the claimants clearly showed a situation of forced labour and that the Greek courts had used a very narrow definition of human trafficking. The judgment emphasises that Article 4 of the Convention also covers threats of punishment and forced labour, and psychological threats. The ECtHR ruled that Greece did not comply with its positive obligation to prevent situations of forced labour as a form of exploitation under the Palermo Protocol and under Article 4 of the Convention. The Grand Chamber emphasised that it is necessary to adopt a global approach to counter the phenomenon of human trafficking and to enact measures aimed at sanctioning traffickers and, in certain circumstances, to take concrete measures to protect victims. Furthermore, a procedural obligation is imposed on signatory States to investigate incidents of potential trafficking.