Human trafficking and labour exploitation

Human trafficking is a criminal activity, the purpose of which is the exploitation of other people by traffickers or the enabling of which to other persons. Human trafficking involves both national and international activities. Therefore, human trafficking does not necessarily involve crossing borders, instead it can occur internally. Human trafficking is modern slavery. Human traffickers can use deceit, threats, physical violence, the victim’s need of assistance or other methods to lure victim

According to section 133 of the Penal Code, human trafficking is:

placing a person, for the purpose of gaining economic benefits or without it, in a situation where he or she is forced to marry, work under unusual conditions, engage in prostitution, beg, commit a criminal offence or perform other disagreeable duties, and keeping a person in such a situation, if such an act is performed through the deprivation of liberty, violence, deceit, threatening to cause damage, by taking advantage of the dependence on another person, the helpless or vulnerable situation of the person.

According to the Penal Code, a vulnerable situation is a situation where a person lacks an actual or acceptable opportunity not to commit any of the acts specified.

Labour exploitation can be seen as a set of situations that varies from milder forms of workforce exploitation to more severe forms. Human trafficking for the purpose of forced labour can be considered the most severe form of labour exploitation, milder cases of exploitation and pressuring can be considered a less severe form of labour exploitation.

The ILO (2012) presents 11 possible indicators of forced labour:

  • Abuse of vulnerability of the employee.
  • Deception, e.g. knowingly providing false information about the working conditions.
  • Restriction of movement of employee, including, for example, being locked up, continuous monitoring of the movement of employee, or unreasonable restriction of movement.
  • Social isolation, including, for example, prohibiting or preventing victims from having contact with their families and seeking help.
  • Use of physical and/or sexual violence.
  • Intimidation and threats, including, for example, threats of loss of wages or denunciation to the immigration authorities.
  • Retention of identity documents.
  • Withholding or non-payment of wages.
  • Debt bondage.
  • Abusive working and living conditions.
  • Excessive overtime.

It is not always clear whether an individual case should be identified as labour exploitation or even as human trafficking for the purpose of forced labour. Many authors (Lisborg 2012, Skrivankova 2010, etc.) have observed that the work experiences of employees range from honest labour to extreme forced labour. Representing labour exploitation as a continuum helps us to better understand the complexity of the phenomenon. In the case of honest labour (situation 1A in the Figure), employees are free to enter and terminate employment relationships and the working conditions meet the national and international standards. This is not labour exploitation. In the case of situations at the other end of the continuum (marked with E in the Figure), employees are not free, they are imprisoned, abducted or they are forced in exploitative labour relationships by violent or other methods. Such cases must be regarded as severe exploitation – exemplary situations of human trafficking illustrate how labour exploitation is not a permanent situation but can change depending on the degree of freedom and coercion of employees.

    Where to seek help?

    Are you being deceived, manipulated, forced to carry out work that you do not consent to, lured into prostitution, subjected to debt bondage, or are the agreements concluded with you being violated, have your documents been taken away, or are you just confused and do not know what to do? 

    If you suspect human trafficking, seek advice from the human trafficking prevention and victim helpline 660 7320 on working days 8.30–17.00. You can receive around-the-clock advice and support from the emergency call number 112.

    Victim support helpline 116 006 offers around-the-clock crisis counselling, provides information on your rights and the help available and puts you in contact with appropriate specialists. From abroad, the Estonian victim support helpline is available at +372 614 7393.

    You can find additional information on the victim support website of the Social Insurance Board

    Last updated: 17.06.2022