State needs to work on slavery
We are behind our EU counterparts in protecting against slavery
Two sisters, aged 16 and 11, left Burundi following the 1993 civil war (in the course of which their parents were killed) to live with their aunt and uncle in Paris.
For more than four years, the sisters, referred to in legal proceedings before the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)as “CN” and “V”, were obliged to carry out all the work of the household for the couple and their seven children, with no remuneration and no days off.
They were accommodated in unhygienic conditions in the basement of the house, subjected to daily physical and verbal abuse and constantly threatened with being sent back to Burundi. V was allowed to attend school.
The sisters finally escaped in 1999 with the help of a French NGO and, in October 2012, the ECHR found that CN, the older sister, had been kept in servitude and subjected to forced labour, in violation of Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
The court’s ruling in this case was the second of two recent judgments (in October and November of this year, relating to France and the UK, respectively) in which the court has confirmed that, in failing to put in place adequate and effective criminal deterrents for slavery, servitude and forced labour, states are in breach of their positive obligations of protection under Article 4 of the ECHR.
In these judgments, the Strasbourg court has emphasised the fundamental and universal nature of the right to be free from such serious forms of exploitation, placing these rights in the same category as freedoms from torture, inhuman and degrading treatment.
All of the cases which had been decided by the court involving servitude and forced labour have been taken by female migrant domestic workers, underlining the fact that those who are at most risk of this type of “modern day slavery” are among the most vulnerable in contemporary European societies – including those working in precarious employment sectors such as domestic care work, often with a temporary or irregular migration status.
This is not “just” a human rights issue but a social justice, falling at the intersection of multiple and historicised forms of discrimination and oppression based on race, class, poverty and gender.
The recent judgments of the Strasbourg court have a particular resonance in the Irish context, where, until now, there has been a lack of an adequate legal provision criminalising slavery, servitude and forced labour. While trafficking for the purposes of labour exploitation, including forced labour, is prohibited under the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008, the relevant provisions are not sufficiently clear for prosecutions to be taken for forced labour under that Act.
We have fallen behind our European counterparts on this front, with much publicity surrounding the sentencing in December in the UK of four members of a family following the first successful prosecutions under Section 71 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, which specifically criminalises forced labour.