A group of Bangladeshi modern slaves who were forced to pick strawberries in Greece without pay and then shot by their employers for demanding their wages have been awarded compensation by Europe’s top human rights court.
The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) said Greece had “failed in its obligations” to stop human trafficking and did not conduct an effective investigation into the treatment of victims.
Judges ordered the Greek government to pay each victim as much as €16,000 after hearing how the migrant workers were forced to work 12-hour days under the supervision of armed guards. After going on strike for non-payment of their wages, they were told they would not receive any money unless they returned to work.
Totalling some €588,000, the cumulative compensation award is among the largest the court has made in its history.
When around 200 workers gathered on a farm near the southern Greek town of Nea Manolada to request their unpaid salaries, at least two supervisors opened fire, injuring more than 20 migrants, the court heard.
The 2013 incident caused widespread revulsion throughout the country. The court said Greek authorities had been fully aware of the circumstances surrounding the shootings, but had failed in its duty to act.
A year after the event, a court acquitted the migrants’ employers of human trafficking charges and ordered them to pay €43 euros each to 35 workers identified as victims.
The court heard the workers lived in makeshift huts with no running water or sanitation.
Ordering Greece to compensate the workers, a judge ruled: “The state failed in its obligations to prevent the situation of human trafficking, to protect the victims, to conduct an effective investigation into the offences committed and to punish those responsible for the trafficking.”
Commenting on the ruling, Amnesty International’s Deputy Europe Director Gauri van Gulik said: “Today’s judgment is an important vindication for these people and their families, and will hopefully help prevent future abuses.
“Amnesty International met the migrant workers in 2013 and interviewed them about the exploitation they were subjected to. We saw for ourselves their appalling living conditions.
“Four years have passed since the horrendous incident, and action is long overdue to ensure forced labour and human trafficking is prevented and identified, and that perpetrators are brought to justice.”
Speaking with the Guardian, a British lawyer who represented the claimants said the case was “one of the most important judgments an international court has ever given for migrant workers”.
“It is a trailblazer for Europe and not only brings justice for the workers in this case but will compel governments to protect migrants without papers against exploitation,” Simon Cox said.
Greece has become one of the main entry points for migrants seeking a better life in the EU after crossing the Mediterranean from their homes in the Middle East and North Africa. The majority of migrants who find work in Greece are employed illegally, so enjoy few protections.