"Crisis situations often bring to the forefront issues that may seem distant and unrelated in a safe world. "In the case of the war in Ukraine, alongside instances of sexual exploitation, cases of labor exploitation have also come into focus," says Sirle Blumberg, the head of victim services for human trafficking at the Social Insurance Board.
Last year, we were contacted by 569 individuals, of whom 158 were officials who drew our attention to certain issues or sought advice, and 411 were clients. Out of the clients, 300 primarily required general information and counseling regarding suspicions of exploitation (such as labor or sexual exploitation) or suspicions of human trafficking, but these suspicions were not ultimately confirmed.
In the case of 40 clients, there was a high likelihood of labor exploitation. For these clients as well, we conducted repeated counseling sessions and assisted them in drafting applications and contacting the Labor Inspectorate's Labor Dispute Committee. With the individuals' consent, we also shared the information with the police.
In addition to counseling, we provided safe accommodation, healthcare services, and legal assistance to 47 victims showing signs of sexual exploitation. In all cases, providing a safe and emotional support is crucial.
"Psychological violence and physical threats, long working hours, non-payment of wages, absence of employment contracts, and sleeping at construction sites," Blumberg cites some examples that emerge from the stories of victims that have reached us. "They usually reach out to us when they are already in a desperate and hopeless situation because they assumed that no one would believe or care," she added.
The vast majority (89%) of our clients were from third countries: From Ukraine, including Ukrainian refugees, from the Russian Federation, Moldova, Uzbekistan, but there were also people from Brazil and Venezuela.
Indeed, Estonia has experienced rapid economic development, and its reputation for safety and security is relatively high. While a decade ago people from Estonia sought job opportunities in neighboring countries, for some time now Estonia has become a destination country for foreign workers. Unfortunately, this has also led to situations where individuals primarily from third countries have been deceived regarding their working conditions, hours, and wages, and they have been threatened with violence or deportation.
The vulnerability of individuals is initially caused by a lack of accurate information and the perception that foreigners should work harder and be grateful for being employed at all. Many people also lack the habit of demanding employment contracts, and there is still a belief that written documents are mere formalities and verbal agreements are sufficient. Indeed, language barrier and lack of knowledge about where to seek help play a significant role in these situations”, Blumberg explains. "If we can recognize situations of exploitation and report them, the chances of preventing the situation from escalating are greater. Prevention and awareness-raising are always the most effective ways to combat human trafficking.”
The Social Insurance Board's helpline +372 6607320 for preventing human trafficking and assisting victims
is open on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (in Estonian, Russian and English), and the caller can remain anonymous if desired.
E-mail: [email protected]
You can receive advice and support around the clock from the Social Insurance Board's victim support crisis helpline at 116 006.