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Protecting mistreated migrant workers

Caritas says vulnerable groups are easily brushed off when they complain about their treatment

By Annette Chrysostomou

“I cleaned three houses, my passport was confiscated. I was hit and slapped by the employers and shouted at.”

This is the fate of an Asian domestic worker recently reported by non-profit volunteer association Caritas Cyprus.

In their newsletter, Caritas also disclosed the problems faced by a foreign agricultural worker: “My boss held my passport, my Alien Registration Book and my pink slip from the day I was employed,” he said, “I worked seven days a week, including public holidays and I didn’t have a day off except Christmas day.”

These stories highlight the problems domestic and agricultural foreign workers can face, but how big are they? Caritas Cyprus is about to find out.

“One of the big problems is the lack of statistics,” said Gosia Chrysanthou, coordinator of the migrant centre in Nicosia. Caritas has now prepared a questionnaire which their volunteers will hand out to 200-500 people in Catholic churches in Cyprus.

“We hope to understand how many are exploited, how many are sexually abused, how many don’t have their passport,” the charity official said.

The members of the organisation believe that this is necessary as “many don’t tell anybody about the problem, they just get a release letter and leave, even with sex. Of course, we only see the problems. We see a domestic worker and think they have a problem which is also not true.”

“Almost nobody who approaches us has a passport,” Chrysanthou added. “It is commonly believed among the public and by employers and agents that they have a right to hold on to the documents of a migrant worker to prevent them from fleeing.”

Problems remain rife, as the statistics show. During 2015 throughout Cyprus, the Caritas centre assisted more than 150 new cases of migrants with problems, in addition to about 100 cases continuing from the previous year.

However, some things have changed for the better.

“People in the government, at the migration office are more helpful now. There is a big change in the past few years, even from last year,” the Caritas coordinator said.

“I believe this is because there are younger people now, people have had more training and follow the law. Also, reports such as those from the Council of Europe report may help because they want to look good.”

Government departments help when there is a strong case and Chrysanthou believes the charity helps 90 per cent of those who approach them. But this excludes the people who are rejected by the charity from the beginning because they are bound to fail.

“A big problem is the timeframe,” she explained, “getting help takes months, and in the meantime people have to survive with no income.”

How does Caritas help? Islandwide, Caritas provides volunteers who advise people where to go to report their problems with employers. This is not enough though. They also accompany victims to the police and government offices.

“The vulnerable groups are easily brushed off. They are asked to come another time. They don’t know how to speak and at the same time there are deadlines and they are told ‘you can’t do this and that at all if you don’t do it within the next two weeks’.”

Though there is more help for migrants now, there is still little success in prosecuting the employers. So far, the Caritas official said, nobody has been sent to prison for any offence.

“Even if the migration department orders employers to pay, some say ‘make me’.”

Legal proceedings are lengthy and costly. Employees have to find a lawyer and pay the solicitor at least €500-600 to start with. Lawyers are reluctant to take on such cases as they usually get paid most of the money at the end of the trial by which time the worker may well have left.

“We had three court cases, one worker was deported, one employer declared bankruptcy and didn’t pay, and in the third case the worker couldn’t wait and left the island for family reasons,” the Caritas official said. “While waiting for the case to be solved, the person has no visa, no work permit and can be picked up by the authorities at any time.”

There is often a lack of evidence as most alleged incidents take place behind closed doors. Moreover, labour inspectors are rarely authorised to enter private homes without court authorisation.

The charity reports that of the migrant domestic workers that come to them, more than 25 per cent have issues with sexual harassment or violence. However, many just leave the country without speaking out.

Chrysanthou believes the best way of dealing mistreatment offences is to ban the offender from employing other migrant workers.

Up to now, Caritas Cyprus has worked relying only on donations. Recently, they have got some funding for two projects from Caritas International. One is to teach carpentry and language skills in Limassol, and the other is a homeless shelter which has been set up in Nicosia.

“When I say homeless, I don’t mean sleeping rough in the streets. These are people who leave the Kofinou centre and are now legal immigrants but they have nowhere to go,” Chrysanthou explained. “They don’t have the money to pay a deposit for a room and the rent, and a deposit for electricity and water, and without this they cannot get employed. So we supply them with shelter and an address.”

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