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Migrants exploited harvesting grapes in France's Champagne region, court hears

Six people and three companies have gone on trial in France, accused of exploiting migrants to harvest grapes for major winemakers in the Champagne region in 2018.

There are close to 200 victims, mostly migrants who were allegedly promised decent terms but claim they ended up working in slave-like conditions.

“They were promised a job with a salary of €10 per hour, which isn’t bad,” said Mehdi Bouzaida, a lawyer for France’s Committee Against Modern Slavery (CCEM).

“They were promised a work period of 20 to 30 days, which isn’t bad either. They were promised accommodation, a room for two or three, so nothing to worry about, but obviously, when they got there, it wasn’t like that at all,”

The charges include illegal work and human trafficking.

The workers described hunger, hard days of labour, sometimes without pay, and without a contract. Some of them were undocumented migrants recruited in reception centres.

A subcontractor hired the workers and provided their services to some of France’s biggest champagne producers. These have denied any knowledge of these practices and have faced no charges.

Nearly 80 workers were allegedly housed in one derelict hotel in the village of Oiry, in conditions investigators say are disgraceful, with some rooms shared by more than 10 workers.

In the courthouse in Reims, a 26-year-old Afghan asylum seeker described his plight over five days of grape picking.

He said workers would get up at 5 am, leave for work at 5.30 am and finish at around 10.30 pm. He said he never was given a contract and had to pay €25 a day for food and accommodation when he earned less than €90 euros for more than 15 hours of daily work.

“There was just one shower, with no hot water, for 36 people. We slept on the floor because there was no mattress,” he said.

The managers of the subcontracting agency face up to three years in jail.

The court is expected to deliver its verdict on September 11.

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