September 23, 2019 / 5:26 PM / 23 days ago

Europol raids on French winemakers uncover dozens of suspected slaves from Bulgaria

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - More than 165 suspected victims of modern slavery from Bulgaria have been discovered working for French winemakers following a crackdown on an organized crime network, Europol said on Monday.

French officials arrested four suspects - three from Bulgaria, one from France - last week after identifying about 167 potential slaves employed by four winegrowing companies near the eastern city of Lyon, according to Europe’s policing agency.

Labor trafficking is rising on the continent and has overtaken sexual exploitation as the main form of slavery in many European nations, the Council of Europe said last year.

“The Bulgarian members of the group were responsible for recruitment in Bulgaria while the French member arranged logistics, including organizing accommodation for the workers,” said a spokesman for Europol, which supported the investigation.

Europol did not respond to a request to provide further details by deadline, while the French and Bulgarian police could not be reached by the Thomson Reuters Foundation for comment.

The workers were recruited by a legitimate employment agency in Bulgaria, told they would receive 60 euros ($66) per day, and have their transport and housing expenses covered, Europol said.

Yet they were made to live on a campsite, had money deducted from their wages for meals, and were denied the full sums they had been promised when their contracts ended - leaving many unable to afford the return trip to Bulgaria - the agency added.

The criminal network laundered the proceeds through properties in France, according to Europol, which connects at least 1,000 law enforcement agencies from about 40 countries.

Europol in July launched a taskforce to target criminal groups involved in human trafficking and migrant smuggling, warning that gangs were using increasingly unusual tactics such as the use of jet skis and yachts to move people.

European nations are struggling to stop migrant workers being abused and treated like slaves, as exploitative bosses in sectors from construction to farming dupe labor inspectors, a European Union (EU) rights agency said last year.

About 25 million people globally are estimated to be trapped in forced labor - from farms and factories to fishing fleets - according to the United Nations’ labor agency.

Writing by Kieran Guilbert, Editing by Claire Cozens. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org

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