The “Tree Workers Case“ is the biggest case of labour exploitation to have been exposed in Europe in the last twenty years. Since 2009, at least 2,000 workers, mainly from Vietnam, but also from Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, Slovakia and the Ukraine have been forced to work under very harsh conditions in the state forest of the Czech Republic.
It is always the same names and dubious employment agencies that keep surfacing in this case. Police, ministries and other authorities say that their hands are tied and that they cannot do anything. However, a group of people – lawyers and members of NGOs in Prague – have joined forces to investigate this case and win compensation for the forest workers.
One of the workers concerned is Pham Hung Long from Vietnam. Before finding work in the Czech Republic in 2009, Mr Long had imagined that Europe would be paradise, but that is not what he found. He and many of his Vietnamese countrymen in the Czech forests experienced working conditions that could be best compared to slave labour. Their employer, different job agencies, had a contract with the biggest Czech forestry company which had, in turn been hired by the national forest authority Lesy CR.
In January 2010, Mr Long – having “escaped” his employers – was the first to seek help from three young Prague attorneys. In the meantime, the case files include more than 150 former forest workers with their stories of fraudulent work contracts, harsh work conditions, no pay, bad food, dreadful accommodation and threats of violence.
For over a year now, the attorneys have been fighting for the official recognition of this case. Sadly, despite the evidence supporting the case, the authorities still refuse to get involved. It is not surprising; the timber industry in the CzechRepublic is booming; Czech wood is in great demand because it is so cheap…
The first job agency is in the meantime operating under a new name, and Mr Long has returned to Vietnam. Pham Hung was naturally overjoyed to be reunited with his family, but his prospects in Vietnam are bleak. Like other young men in his village, he paidenormous sums to the local middleman of the Czech agencies, in order to be able to go to Europe and he still has debts. To make matters worse, he has come home empty-handed. In his culture, that is a humiliating loss of face.
Documentary, February 2012, 52 min, HD, OV engl. subtitles