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Low level of criminal law protection for exploited migrant workers in Sweden

a woman wearing a brimmed hat with her back towards the camera, picking berries that she is putting into a bucket behind her on the ground.

Sociologists of law find that Swedish law enforcement struggles to investigate the exploitation of migrant workers. Only two percent of reported cases end up in court. Central to the justice deficit are two interacting logics: the criminal law logic and the labour migration regime.

Of the 237 cases of human trafficking for forced labour and human exploitation reported to Swedish police from 2012 to 2020, 211 were investigated. Only five ended up in court, resulting in four convictions - one for human exploitation and three for other offences.

Sociologists of law Isabel Schoultz and Heraclitos Muhire found that a crucial reason behind the low number of convictions is the problem of procuring evidence of forced labour. Migrant workers at greatest risk of exploitation work insecure jobs and depend on their employers to access visas, accommodation, and earned income. Their precariousness makes them cautious of authorities. Reporting exploitation to the police is often the last resort or not even an option.

"It's often the case that they've spoken about [the offence] for the first time when they are at the Migration Agency and have had an application for continued residence rejected, and then they present this information, and it's very difficult to corroborate after the [alleged crime]," says a prosecutor interviewed in the study.

Schoultz and Muhire argue that the situation is understandable based on the logic of criminal law and the labour migration regime. The criminal law logic is to discontinue criminal investigations that fail to turn up evidence meeting the courts' high evidential threshold to convict the accused.

"Simultaneously, as a part of a capitalist logic with a demand for cheap and hard-working labour, the labour migration regime creates insecure and temporary low-paid jobs," says Isabel Schoultz. "And the fact that undocumented migrant workers are 'deportable' creates an even more precarious situation."

Schoultz and Muhire note that authorities are more likely to identify exploited migrant workers as offenders who are in breach of immigration laws than as victims. They write, "Precarious migration status creates even more precarious employment situations, insecure and unstable work, and a lack of regulatory protection. Thus, neo-liberal labour markets and highly restrictive immigration regimes produce a form of 'hyper-precarity'."

Yet, all hope is not lost for migrants exploited in the Swedish labour market. Schoultz's and Muhire's previous research shows that "some Swedish unions have been successful in gaining economic compensation for exploited migrant workers". They also note that Sweden could follow the Finnish example and legislate for better protection of immigrant workers.

Read Isabel Schoultz's and Herclitos Muhire's article "Is there any criminal law protection for exploited migrant workers in Sweden? Logics of criminal law and the labour migration regime", published in the Nordic Journal of Criminology.


Isabel Schoultz

Isabel Schoultz holds a PhD in Criminology from Stockholm University. She is a Senior Lecturer and researcher at the Sociology of Law Department and the Director of the research institute EconSec. Additionally, Schoultz is the Associate Editor of the Journal of White Collar and Corporate Crime.

Heraclitos Muhire

Heraclitos Muhire is a PhD candidate at the Sociology of Law Department. He holds a bachelor’s degree in criminology and a master’s degree in sociology of law from Lund University.