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Dozens protest human trafficking in Czech forestry industry

Prague, 28.3.2011 13:53, (ROMEA)

Several dozen activists and migrant workers met in Prague yesterday afternoon in front of the Czech Agriculture Ministry to draw attention to the "loggers" case by planting a tree and then marching to the Czech Interior Ministry. Up to 600 forestry workers from Romania, Slovakia and Vietnam are alleged to have been harmed.

Organizers of the Initiative for the Rights of Labor Migrants, the No Racism! Initiative and NGOs have repeatedly expressed their dissatisfaction with the Czech authorities' inertia on wiping out what the NGOs allege is slave labor. They are asking that the state investigate this case of worker abuse and exploitation. NGOS also want the firms that employed the workers to pay them what they were promised.

According to Pavel Čižinský of the Organization for Aid to Refugees (Organizace pro pomoc uprchlíkům - OPU), hundreds of workers were cheated, more than 70 of whom have turned to the Initiative for help. The companies concerned owe CZK 2.5 million to those 70, but Čižinský says the total amount of back wages owed to all the workers will be somewhere in the tens of millions of crowns. He said the cheating of workers is in its third year and will evidently continue, as more Romanians are expected to be brought here for work this year.

Čižinský says police are doing nothing about the allegations. The Lesy ČR company, which manages state-owned forests, has distanced itself from the case. Referring to the contracts it has signed with subcontractors, the state enterprise claims it cannot influence either the selection of workers or whether the firms pay them. "The company has no legal means or monitoring measures for that," Lesy ČR stated in a press release. According to the company, those really to blame are the employers and labor brokers who have violated the law.

The case of the foreign workers recently drew significant attention. Through the labor brokers, they found jobs working for the state forests or the Krkonoš National Park. The workers claim they worked between 10 and 12 hours a day and received only part of the pay promised them. Some had to sleep in crowded conditions in small rooms. The management also allegedly threatened them. Police are investigating.

The labor agencies supplied workers to the firm of Less & Forest, which won a public tender from the state-owned forests and the Krkonoš National Park. Activists say the agencies offered salaries to the workers of between CZK 10 000 and CZK 20 000 monthly to plant trees and do other forestry work in 2009 and 2010.

Čižinský says Lesy ČR bears moral responsibility for the scandal at the very least. "It is not possible for a state-owned firm to take no interest in the conditions of those working for it," he said, adding that the company has known about the problem for some time.

Activists equipped themselves for yesterday's event with various tools, bringing drills, saws, shovels and spades. They also carried banners reading "Foreigners are not disposable." A Vietnamese worker who worked for two months but was never paid spoke in front of the ministry.

Gwendolyn Albert, Radka Steklá, ras, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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