Example 2: European Court of Human Rights protecting a migrant child from forced labor and servitude in France
Project Type: Litigation: Siliadin v. France, Judgment, merits and just satisfaction, App. No. 73316/01 (ECHR 2005).
Siwa-Akofa Siliadin, a Togolese national, represented by a legal aid attorney, H. Clément of the Paris Bar.
Ms. Siliadin was born in 1978 and arrived in Paris on a tourist visa in 1994 at age 15. She arrived in Paris with “Mrs. D.” who promised to attend to her immigration status, find adequate schooling and let her work of the cost of her airfare by working at her home. Ms. Siliadin, however, ultimately became an unpaid housemaid for Mr. and Mrs. D. Also, her passport was taken from her. In the second half of 1994, Mrs. D. “lent” Ms. Siliadin to Mr. and Mrs. B. to perform household work for Mr. and Mrs. B.
While at Mr. and Mrs. B.’s home, Ms. Siliadin slept on a mattress on the floor in the baby’s room. She worked from 7:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night, seven days a week, performing a range of general household duties, without pay (except by Mrs. B.’s mother, who paid her one or two 500 French franc (FRF) notes).
On July 28, 1998, the police raided Mr. and Mrs. B.’s home. Mr. and Mrs. B. were charged with:
…[H]aving obtained from July 1995 to July 1998 the performance of services without payment or in exchange for payment that was manifestly disproportionate to the work carried out, by taking advantage of that person’s vulnerability of state of dependence;  with having subjected an individual to working and living conditions that were incompatible with human dignity by taking advantage of her vulnerability or state of dependence….
On June 10, 1999, the Paris tribunal de grande instance found that Mr. and Mrs. B. had taken advantage of a person’s vulnerability or dependent state to obtain services without payment or adequate payment. The Court, therefore, found Mr. and Mrs. B. guilty of Article 225-13 of the French Criminal Code. The Court sentenced the couple to a year imprisonment (with seven months suspended) and ordered them to pay, jointly and severally, FRF 100,000 to Ms. Siliadin.
The Court did not find, however, that Ms. Siliadin worked in conditions that were incompatible with human dignity. According to the court, working conditions violative of human dignity imply: “a furious pace, frequent insults and harassment, the need for particular physical strength that was disproportionate to the employee’s constitution and having to working unhealthy premises.” Therefore, since these conditions did not exist for Mr. Siliadin, Mr. and Mrs. B. did not create a work environment that was incompatible with human dignity.
Mr. and Mrs. B. appealed the decision. On October 19, 2000, the Paris Court of Appeal acquitted Mr. and Mrs. B. of all criminal charges and dismissed all civil claims against them.
On December 11, 2001, the Court of Cassation quashed the decision of the Court of Appeal, but only with respect to the provisions dismissing the civil party’s request for compensation in respect of the offences provided for in Articles 225-13 and 225-14 of the Criminal Code.
On May 15, 2003, the Versailles Court of Appeal, which ordered payment of 15,245 in compensation to Ms. Siliadin for the psychological trauma she experienced as a result of Mr. and Mrs. B.’s actions. On October 3, 2003, the Paris industrial tribunal awarded Ms. Siliadin back pay in the amount of €33,049.
Ms. Siliadin lodged an application with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) on April 17, 2001, submitting that French criminal law lacked sufficient and effective protection. Her application was declared partly admissible on February 1, 2005.
European Convention on Human Rights
Article 4. Prohibition of slavery and forced labour. (1) No one shall be held in slavery or servitude. (2) No one shall be required to perform forced or compulsory labour.
Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labour
Article 2 (1) For the purposes of this Convention the term “forced or compulsory labour” shall mean all work or service which is exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.
French Criminal Code
Art. 225-13: “It shall be an offense punishable by two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 500,000 francs to obtain from an individual the performance of services without payment or in exchange for payment that is manifestly disproportionate to the amount of work carried out, by taking advantage of that person’s vulnerability or state of dependence.”
Slavery, Servitude, Forced Labour and Similar Institutions and Practices Convention of 1926
Article 1(1): Slavery is the status or condition of a person over whom any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised.
Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery (1956)
Article 1: Each of the States Parties to this Convention shall take all practicable and necessary legislative and other measures to bring about progressively and as soon as possible the complete abolition or abandonment of . . . debt bondage . . . serfdom . . . .
Arguments and Holdings
Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) proscribes “slavery,” “servitude” and “compulsory labor.” The Court first looked to see if Ms. Siliadin was subjected to “slavery,” “servitude” or “compulsory labor,” and then turned to see if (a) French law proscribed thatconduct, and (b) if the ECHR imposed a positive obligation on the French to criminalize such conduct.
Forced or compulsory labor.
Drawing support from Article 2 of the Convention Concerning Forced or Compulsory Labor (1930), the Court interpreted the ECHR’s reference to “forced or compulsory labour” to mean “all work or service which exacted from any person under the menace of any penalty and for which the said person has not offered himself voluntarily.” Mr. and Mrs. B. had Ms. Siliadin labor for them without any compensation. Although they did not impose a penalty on her, she was a minor and feared arrest as an unlawfully present alien—the equivalent of a “penalty” by the Court’s determination. Therefore, Ms. Siliadin was subjected to “forced labor” within the meaning of Article 4 of the ECHR.
Citing a decision by a French court, the ECtHR interpreted servitude to mean “an obligation to provide one’s services that is imposed by the use of coercion.” Ms. Siliadin had not chosen to work for Mr. or Mrs. B. She was an alien minor. Mr. and Mrs. B. withheld her passport, and she feared arrest by the police. She had no resources and was vulnerable and isolated. The Court, therefore, held that Ms. Siliadin was held in servitude for purposes of Article 4 of the ECHR.
The ECtHR also pointed out that States Parties to the Supplementary Convention on the Abolition of Slavery, the Slave Trade, and Institutions and Practices Similar to Slavery—like France—had a positive obligation to take all practical and necessary legislative and other means to bring about progressively and as soon as possible the complete abolition or abandonment of, inter alia, debt bondage and serfdom.
Drawing support from Article 1(1) of the Slavery Convention, the Court interpreted “slavery” as found in the Article 4 of the ECHR to mean “ownership” of another. The Court held that, although Ms. Siliadin did not have freedom of movement, she did not suffer slavery, as Mr. and Mrs. B never exercised any genuine legal right of ownership of Ms. Siliadin.
Positive obligation of France.
Slavery and servitude were not expressly criminalized under French law. Articles 225-13 and 225-14 of the French Criminal Code (see box) contained ambiguities and gave rise to different interpretations by the national courts. Article 4 enshrines one of the most basic values of democratic societies. Not imposing a positive obligation on states to fashion domestic legislation in accordance with the article but rather only finding State Parties liable for state actions in violation of the article would result in ineffective protection of one of the most basic values within the Council of Europe. Therefore, France failed in its positive obligation under the ECHR to provide legal protection to Siliadin from slavery and forced labor.
Commentary and Analysis
This is the first case in which the ECtHR found a violation of Article 4. With the interpretative support of other international treaties, the Court found that Mr. and Mrs. B subjected Ms. Siliadin to forced labor and servitude, and thus strengthened protection against human trafficking and migrant forced labor within Europe.