NBI conducted an investigation into suspected aggravated human trafficking in construction industry

Publication date 2.5.2023 9.13
News item

The National Bureau of Investigation and the National Criminal Police of Estonia have investigated together aggravated trafficking in human beings involving companies with links to the construction industry. It is suspected that an organisation consisting of different companies and individuals has deceived several dozen workers into coming to work in Finland in circumstances such as forced labour and has gained criminal proceeds of over 2.3 million euros from this activity.

In the case connected with the construction industry investigated by the National Bureau of Investigation, it is suspected that foreign workers were lured to Finland from Latvia and Estonia to work here in circumstances such as forced labour.

During the criminal investigation, the police identified 21 possible victims of the suspected aggravated human trafficking. Besides aggravated trafficking in human beings, the suspected offences include an aggravated employment pension insurance contribution fraud. The National Bureau of Investigation has investigated the case in close cooperation with the National Criminal Police of Estonia.

The criminal investigation has established that the suspects recruited workers for various tasks in the construction industry through the companies that they had set up. It is suspected that they exploited the workers by deceiving and misleading them and by putting them in debt so that it could not be considered that the workers had offered themselves for the work voluntarily.

– The suspects exploited the victims’ dependent status on their employer which was due to the lack of means and language skills. We also suspect that violence or the threat of violence was used on some workers, says Head of Investigation, Detective Chief Inspector Marko Heinonen of the National Bureau of Investigation. 

The police believe that many victims worked in poor working conditions with long working days and with no possibility for breaks. In many cases, the employer failed, fully or partly, to pay the victims’ wages.

Estonian suspects, several hundred potential victims

The police suspect that the offences were committed by an organisation mainly consisting of Estonian persons and operating in a methodical manner. Those leading the activity and those persons behind the organisation have been classified in Estonia as individuals who have been involved in a criminal organisation. 

It is suspected that the organisation sought to disguise the criminal activity by setting up separate companies for transferring and concealing its criminal proceeds. The suspects appointed a Finnish managing director for the company which is at the centre of the criminal activity, but the director has no actual decision-making power within the company. 

– According to the criminal investigation, the Finnish managing director has never been paid any salary but was appointed to make the company look better from outside and to make it more difficult to discover the criminal activity.

The police estimate that the organisation recruited hundreds of workers to Finland from other countries in 2020–2022. Most of the victims are Latvian, Estonian and Ukrainian citizens.

– We have identified 21 victims in the case. The real number of victims may be much higher. Trafficking in human beings is often a hidden crime, and the victims do not necessarily even know that they have become victims of crime. It is also challenging to get contact with those who have returned to their home country, says Head of Investigation Heinonen.

The Finnish construction companies for which the victims worked are not suspected of any criminal offences.

Suspected exploitation of light entrepreneurship

The criminal suspicions focus on the organised activity which was created around a billing service company operating in Finland and which consisted of exploiting light entrepreneurship. The suspects agreed with the representatives of construction businesses operating in Finland on the recruitment and supply of workers to the companies. The police believe that the suspects arranged contracts concerning the victims’ working between the construction businesses and the separate companies they had set up and thus gained significant criminal proceeds for themselves. 

It is estimated that the total amount of proceeds gained from the criminal activity is around 2.3 million euros. 

The police believe that the workers were registered for the billing service company as light entrepreneurs without their knowledge of this arrangement or the meaning of light entrepreneurship. In reality, they had an employment relationship under employment law, and the company was obliged to ensure their working conditions. 

– The aim of said arrangement was to avoid the employer’s responsibilities, reduce salary, transfer money from the victims to the suspects, and avoid employment pension insurance contributions. Light entrepreneurship enabled artificial reduction of salary by cutting related costs, says Heinonen.

The organisation promised the workers free accommodation in Finland, and salary for the work done. However, the workers found out later on that their working conditions did not correspond to what had been agreed. 

– They actually had to pay for accommodation, and different costs such as working clothes and equipment were deducted from their salary, contrary to what had been agreed. The employer gave fines to the victims and deducted sums from their salary for reasons such as absence, poorly done work or use of phone during working hours. 

The criminal investigation has established that the victims’ salary was eventually so low that they ran into debt with their employer.

– Many victims found themselves in a situation where they could not afford to return to their home country but had to continue working against their will.

Criminal investigation completed 

The police suspect 11 persons of 21 offences of aggravated trafficking in human beings and one aggravated employment pension insurance contribution fraud. Ten suspects come from Estonia and one from Finland. Seven suspects were remanded during the criminal investigation, and two of them are still held on remand. These two are Estonian citizens.

The criminal investigation has been completed, and the case has been referred to the Prosecution District of Southern Finland for consideration of charges.

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