A Belgian shopping mall built on unpaid work
A shady labyrinth of subcontractors at a construction site in Charleroi, Belgium, drove some workers to the point of near suicide. They were working under heavily abusive conditions and were deliberately divided to prevent collective action.
Rive Gauche is a shopping centre in Charleroi that was built between 2014 and 2017. Like in many construction projects, the client – in this case, Canadian Groupe St. Lambert – subcontracted multiple different organisations to supply workers and supervise the construction process.
This spider web of sketchy subcontractors and untraceable companies led to a nightmare on the ground. Groupe St. Lambert signed a contract with wealthy Belgian construction companies Valens s.a. and Duchene s.a (Valens-Duchene). They, in turn, contracted out construction work to Italian company Consorzio edile, who then hired Gruppo Bison s.r.l., led by Aldo Bison, to manage the contract.
It didn’t end there. Gruppo Bison controlled hundreds of construction sites – yet had no registered employees at all. Instead, it hired small, short-lived companies to supply workers for sites in Europe.
Employees were trafficked to Belgium without working permits – some not even aware that they were being transported and employed illegally. Companies who had not yet paid their workers suddenly went out of business. Workers were given different supervisors and accommodations based on their nationality. Long shifts were the norm. Labour abuses continued even after inspections, and responsibility for social security remained unclear.
On 14 April 2016, rising tensions culminated in seven Egyptian workers climbing a crane and threatening to jump if their salaries weren’t paid.
Valens-Duchene easily escaped its liability by ending the agreement with Consorzio edile and the Bison Group, leaving Consorzio responsible for paying 77 unpaid workers and a €500,000 penalty to Valens-Duchene.
But the chaos wasn’t over. Only two months later, eight Romanian workers from the site protested the conditions and were beaten in the street. Managers of their subcontracting company offered them money to stay silent.
In March 2017, Bison Group proudly presented a contract claiming all workers had been paid, signed by everyone working at the site – workers whose ability to keep their permits depended on the continuation of their contract.
Similar subcontracting practices and the abuse of workers rights remain the norm in the construction sector and other industries in Europe. These confusing models and exploitative business practices divide the workforce, propagate labour rights abuses and make it complicated to identify who should be held responsible.
The construction of Rive Gauche shows how difficult it is to hold business accountable, even within the territory of the European Union.
It also shows how workers should be involved in due diligence consultations and key decisions, to ensure they have clear access to justice.
Without an EU law that ensures human rights throughout value chains, workers are left at the risk of being pushed to the point of despair.