The exploitation of migrant workers is not a new phenomenon. Migrants working in industries as diverse as construction, cleaning, catering and agricultural work commonly experience precarious working conditions, especially in countries and sectors where the influence of trade unions is weak.
The Nordic welfare states are often considered an exception to this rule. The so-called ‘Danish model’, in which minimum wages and working conditions are agreed through tripartite negotiations between trade unions, employers’ associations and the state, is considered an excellent example of how a national labour market can be regulated to secure workers’ rights.
Yet despite the benefits of this system migrants continue to be exploited in Danish industries. One example is a group of Chinese migrants that received residence and work permits through the Danish fast-track programme. Contracts under this programme are based on collective agreements, but even so, employers circumvented the rules to pay them much lower salaries. There have also been reports of truck drivers from the Philippines being severely underpaid in comparison to their Danish colleagues. They were also offered poor housing in a makeshift camp, which violated Danish housing regulations in every possible way. Other Danish cases of human trafficking and labour exploitation have now also come to light in the cleaning industry, where migrants, in particular Romanians, have experienced fraud and coercion.
The first conviction in a Danish court for human trafficking for forced labour occurred in 2016. In January 2021 a similar conviction took place, this time regarding two Ghanaian men who had worked on a Danish fishing boat for two years. It is clear that, between all these cases, the exploitation of migrant workers has become an integral part of the Danish labour market. That is no longer in question. What remains to be seen, however, is how the representatives of the labour market – the trade unions, the employers’ associations, and the Danish government – respond.
We are not convinced that the Danish model and the Danish welfare system are capable of ensuring the rights of migrant workers. Nor are we convinced that these representatives are particularly interested in doing so. In a now completed three-year research project on forced labour and human trafficking, we explored how EU and non-EU migrants experienced exploitation in the Danish labour market. Following the migrants throughout the recruitment process, from leaving their home country to working in Denmark, we mapped out how a number of actors condition migrants’ mobility within the agricultural, horticultural, construction, and cleaning industries.
We found that the migration infrastructure, which includes everything from privately-run, temporary employment agencies to public educational programmes and the Danish immigration service, is inscrutable for migrant workers. Metaphorically, the migrants find themselves participating in a lottery. When they win, their initial employment in Denmark serves as a stepping stone to new job opportunities either in Denmark or in their home country. When they lose, they end up heavily in debt and caught on a treadmill of precarious work.
Mobility and precarity within the Danish labour market
The three groups of migrant workers we followed experienced different forms of precarious working conditions within unskilled employment in Denmark. One key factor shaping their experience was immigration status, and how the Danish state’s regulation of its borders affects workers’ labour conditions. The first group, non-EU migrants without a documented work permit, does not have any labour rights. This makes their position fragile. The second group comprises non-EU migrants who obtained residence and work permits through fast track programmes. The third group includes migrants that, through their EU citizenship, have the right to look for employment in Denmark. Let us take a closer look at these last two groups, and how their mobility and the Danish border control define their precarious working conditions.
Non-EU migrants can obtain work and residence permits through Danish fast-track programmes. The employment they obtain through these programmes is outlined in accordance with Danish collective agreements, yet there is still the potential for exploitation because the permits are tied to specific employers. This dependency on the employer establishes uneven power relations between the employer and the employee. Migrants find it difficult to complain about their working conditions because their permits will be revoked if they are fired. Some employers take advantage of that leverage by, for example, pressuring employees to work unpaid overtime.