Who is really responsible for the Borealis scandal?

Exploitation of Filipino workers at the Borealis construction site is provoking a great deal of reaction. Justifiably so.

It’s all about the outright exploitation of foreign workers, the flouting of Belgian legislation and collective labour agreements, the breaking of European rules, human trafficking, etc.

These are all serious crimes. Press articles and political reactions have put forward all kinds of explanations as to how this sort of thing can happen. The flawed European rules on job secondments, too few checks and not enough inspectors all combine to create the sort of subcontracting tangle in which a cat couldn’t find its own (naughty) kitten… And each of these statements is true.

But in actual fact, the real reason is simple: Borealis is responsible for what happens on its own sites.

Borealis claims “it is willing to cooperate” with the investigation

But this just cynical and too late to be of any use. Multinational corporations and large companies farm out a great deal of work to subcontractors. And if anything goes wrong in the subcontracting chain, they simply wash their hands of it. Which is so easy to do! However, these sorts of companies know very well what happens if they themselves do not demand guarantees from their subcontractors and if they do not keep an eye on what is happening in their supply chain.

Saying “We didn’t know” demonstrates cynical complicity with the gangsters who do their dirty work for them. With one aim in mind: to make money. Everything always has to be cheaper. Unions worldwide have long complained about this “race to the bottom”. Yet far too little is done to actually hold the main parties involved accountable for their unethical misconduct.

The people behind it all must take responsibility

Unfortunately, Borealis is by no means an isolated case. Nor is the construction industry. These sorts of excesses are also happening in the transport sector, the meat-processing industry, the clothing sector and others.

Not so long ago, the Danish trade union 3F actually discovered a “camp” where hundreds of Filipino truckers were staying during their mandatory rest periods. As was the case at Borealis, they were being paid far too little and were living in appalling conditions. It’s nothing less than organised fraud and exploitation, with the complicity of foreign temporary employment agencies in the tangled web of subcontracting.

Closer to home, the Belgian Transport Association BTB took on the case of a Filipino driver who, together with 23 colleagues, responded to an advertisement to work for an Austrian transport company. He was hired by IMI SPED, a company registered in Slovakia and came through an “agency” called DEBEDA (which has since disappeared following complaints). The Filipino driver “earned” 480€ per month for working 45 to 50 hours per week. He received his jobs by text message and worked, lived and slept… in his truck. That was until the police stopped him and he ended up with the union. In the meantime, he has been recognised as a victim of human trafficking.

What went wrong at Borealis is not an isolated case. It is merely the tip of an enormous iceberg.

More inspectors!

The unions have been calling for years for more inspectors and more inspections like voices in the wilderness. At the present time, the inspection department specialising in the haulage sector employs just 8 inspectors for Flanders. Which is a drop in the ocean compared with the numbers of trucks that drive along our roads every day.

These inspectors are trying to mop up the water while the tap is still on full. It is cynical to watch how their excellencies, such as Minister Van Quickenborne, have reacted so indignantly today to the Borealis case and announced the recruitment of extra inspectors. Too little, too late! He’s talking about several dozen. While we need many times that number. It’s like trying to fight a fire with a teaspoon!

Real action, please!

Jost, one of the biggest haulage companies in Belgium, was accused of similar practices to those at Borealis after the inspection services took action. However, the company made a €30 million settlement with the court and so got away with it. In other words, it bought off the authorities for its crimes!

Anyone who can put enough money on the table can get away with social and tax fraud, as well as structural exploitation.
Another haulage company was taken to court by the Belgian Transport Association in a case involving social dumping. The whole process has been dragging on for six years now and has become bogged down in the comings and goings of legal proceedings. The transport company RMT from Limburg was found guilty, but promptly went bankrupt. The Bulgarian drivers who were conned and deceived can whistle for their money. In the meantime, the organisers of this exploitation are quietly continuing their work under a different cover. Judicial proceedings take too long and prosecutions can be bought off far too easily.

The principals must take responsibility!

It’s high time that real action was taken against companies that are at the root of these rogue networks. Cheaper and cheaper to make more and more money… it has to stop. Anyone who subcontracts their jobs must take responsibility for ensuring they are carried out properly. Collaborating with fraudsters or unethical business structures must be punished. That’s what the government needs to do!

And the companies themselves – often multinationals – that wash their hands of all this, claiming they are innocent, need to take a long, hard look in the mirror. They need to take responsibility for what they are doing. It’s time to impose a code of ethics on the people who subcontract and also to enforce it.

It’s time to replace “corporate greed” with “due diligence”!


Frank Moreels

27th July 2022