“You should be grateful!”
October 9, 2018
That’s what countless trafficking victims are told – that they should be grateful to have a job, a roof over their heads and food, even if they’re exploited and abused. That’s exactly what Shadia was told by the employer for whom she worked for two years without ever being paid. She was 16 when a man from her village in sub-Saharan Africa hired her to work at his home in Belgium, promising a good wage. It was a promise he never kept…
Photo: PAG-ASA, All rights reserved
When Mr Thiam* returned to the village, we slaughtered a goat to mark the occasion. After the feast, my father came looking for me. He told me that Mr Thiam worked for the embassy in Belgium and that he had come to the village to find a girl who could leave with him to work at his home. After much discussion, they had decided on me. I started to cry, because I really didn’t want to leave my family, and I was afraid I would never see them again if I went there. My father reassured me. He told me that it had been decided that Mr Thiam would pay 100000 CFA francs right away. Afterwards, he would pay me half my wages every month and send the other half to my family. I knew that my family needed the money, especially since the Cacao crisis, which had seriously affected our village. So I grudgingly resigned myself to leave. The next day I said goodbye to my parents and my younger brothers and got in the car.
Mr Thiam treated me very kindly. When we got to the capital, he gave me money to buy clothes and took care of my passport and visa.
A week later we got on the plane to Brussels. That’s when his behaviour started to change. He became shorter with me, my mere presence seemed to irritate him. I didn’t dare react.
When we landed in Brussels – what a shock! It was -5 ℃. I thought I would die of cold. I wasn’t expecting it. But it was nothing compared to the icy welcome I received in Mr Thiam’s magnificent home. His wife didn’t say a single word to me, she just looked me over from head to toe. She showed me my ‘room’ – a two-meter square cupboard where I could put my things. An hour later I was standing in front of the sink, doing the washing up.
From then on, each day was like every other; I worked from 6am to 11pm, doing the dishes and laundry, cleaning, cooking, and looking after the children.
“At the end of the first month, I timidly asked Mr Thiam for half my wages, as agreed. His only reply was that my trip had cost a lot and that I would be paid once that amount had been reimbursed. But he said that he had paid the other half of my wages to my parents.”
Three months later, I still hadn’t been paid anything. When I got up the courage to ask for my wages, Mr Thiam blew his top. “You should be grateful to live in Belgium and not to have to worry about where your next meal is coming from”, he shouted, and then he slapped me, hard. “Now you know who’s giving the orders around here.”
“I continued working for him, despite the ill-treatment, to help my family. It was only two years later that I learned that my family wasn’t receiving anything either. I decided to go to the police for help. The police listened to me, then told me what to do and gave me the name of an association that could help me.”
That’s when Shadia arrived at the PAG-ASA shelter. PAG-ASA is a Belgian organization providing trafficking victims with support (shelter, psychosocial, administrative and legal aid) and working hard to promote awareness of the problem. PAG-ASA took part in the launch of the 50 for Freedom campaign at the European Parliament in 2016.
With the support of PAG-ASA, Shadia sued Mr Thiam and his wife. Unfortunately, they had diplomatic immunity and therefore could not be prosecuted. Shadia cannot go home – since she sued a diplomat, she is wanted by the police in her country of origin. Fortunately, under Belgian law, victims in such situations can ask for their status to be regularized. Shadia has since received a residence permit on humanitarian grounds. She’s done some training and is working in Belgium.
The Council of the European Union called on the 28 EU Member States to ratify the ILO Protocol on Forced Labour as soon as possible, the preferred deadline was before 31 December 2016. To date only about a dozen EU countries have done so.
* All names and other identifying information have been modified to protect the victims.