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Modern slavery campaigners turn to online exploitation

Aliya Ram
Jon Nazca | Reuters

Locuri de munca in strainatate — or "jobs abroad" in Romanian — is one of several widely followed Facebook pages that target workers from eastern Europe with adverts for jobs in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands and France.

The page's profile picture shows a woman in a shower cap carrying a pallet of strawberries; its cover photo depicts two men in hard hats measuring rebar on a construction site.

With almost 17,000 followers, the page demonstrates the growing use of social media to recruit migrant laborers. But it also highlights the increasing challenge for authorities fighting misleading and exploitative recruitment online.

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"If you go on Facebook, you have a lot of interest groups, migrant workers, sharing information about jobs or workers, trying to recruit each other through the internet," said Klara Skrivankova, UK and Europe program manager at Anti-Slavery International, the campaign group. "But there is very little information on rights, recruitment fees or deceptive recruitment."

A recent report co-ordinated by the International Trade Union Confederation and funded by the EU cited the Locuri de munca in strainatate page for featuring adverts that raised concerns about potential risks to workers. It said job ads that promised unrealistically high pay, offered no address for a recruitment agency or only shared a general description of work were "common red flags" for potentially exploitative recruitment.

But the Facebook page and the website linked to it continue to feature such adverts.

One advert for a tin worker from Romania to work in France provides no job or salary information, saying only that the benefits of the work include a stable working environment and a long-term mission. When contacted by the Financial Times, the recruiter hung up the phone.

Social media companies 'have a responsibility'

Phillip Fishman, a senior adviser at the International Labor Organization, a UN agency dealing with labor problems, questioned whether social media companies should "expect a certain amount of truthfulness and responsibility in job advertisements".

"I do think they have a responsibility," he said. "For example, if Facebook knows that there is an entity targeting a Nepalese audience to go work in the Gulf and promising $50,000 to $60,000 [a year], the question for Facebook is how much responsibility do they have to take to ensure that the advertisement is connected to reality?"

In a speech at the World Economic Forum in January, UK prime minister Theresa May criticized tech companies for failing to do more to prevent trafficking.

"Internet companies cannot stand by while their platforms are used to facilitate child abuse, modern slavery or the spreading of terrorist and extremist content," she said.

Four months later, the Gangmasters and Labor Abuse Authority, a public body, recommended that the government should "consider further opportunities to tackle and identify the increasing use of online and social media recruitment, including awareness raising and promotion within communities vulnerable to being victims of exploitative practice".

A Home Office spokesperson declined to comment.

Authorities in other parts of Europe have also begun to scrutinize the use of social media in labor trafficking, but policing efforts have been inconsistent and difficult to track.

Enforcement agencies 'need to know more'

Petya Nestorova, executive secretary at the Council of Europe's convention against trafficking in human beings, pointed to the police in Iceland, who she said screen social media sites for suspicious job offers.

But she said few other countries had adopted similar policies, and in some countries, such as Azerbaijan and Ukraine, governments had given labor inspectors moratoriums not to bother businesses about exploitation.

High-ranking Council of Europe officials have met social media companies in recent months to discuss the roles the platforms have to play in ensuring human rights are protected, she said.

"[Social media recruitment] is definitely an area where [we] feel we need to know much more," she said, adding that more information about how platforms are used by traffickers would support policing efforts.

Police forces and policymakers say it is difficult to identify exploitative recruitment online when detailed conversations usually take place in private and illegal activity often happens alongside legal behavior.

"The activities are strongly linked with legal job markets," said Robert Črepinko, head of the European Migrant Smuggling Centre at Europol, the European law enforcement agency. "Co-operation between law enforcement and social media is essential."

'No single country can act to end this'

Anti-trafficking groups have also warned that crackdowns could drive traffickers underground.

"Workers desperate for opportunities overseas have been driven towards ever more dangerous recruitment channels," said Caroline Robinson, director of the Focus on Labor Exploitation campaign group.

"There is an urgent need to advance global debates on minimum standards for safe recruitment and to monitor compliance with such standards," she added. "No single country can act to end this, international co-ordination is essential."

But without obvious signals in public posts, the issue has proven complex for tech companies that are not privy to private communications.

Facebook said it was working with the UN and grassroots organisations to raise awareness of human smuggling and trafficking.

"We also continually consult with experts in this area to ensure our policies appropriately account for emerging trends in this space, and we remain committed to keeping this illegal activity off Facebook," a spokesperson said.

Twitter, which does not allow illegal activity on its platform as a matter of policy, declined to comment.

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