Legislation fails victims of forced labour in Ireland


There is no legislation banning forced labour in Ireland, but this must change if workers are not to be exploited, as in a recent case settled in the Labour Court

IN THE MOST severe cases their hair was shorn, they were beaten, unpaid and housed in horse boxes, sheds and dog kennels. The news that broke on Sunday about 24 Britons and eastern Europeans allegedly enslaved at a Traveller site in suburban England provoked shock and sympathy. But a delicate question also crossed the minds of people watching this modern-day Dickensian horror unfold on TV screens.

“I’m sure people were thinking, Why didn’t they run away,” says Delphine O’Keeffe of Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI), an organisation campaigning for forced labour to be made a standalone criminal offence, like it is in the UK. O’Keeffe says people “don’t have to be in shackles” when psychological manipulation and threats are used to exert control over them. There are powerful reasons people don’t run, as evidenced in MRCI’s harrowing case files.

“We had one case where the family members in the [exploited] person’s home country had to move three times because they were being threatened by people related to those exploiting the person in Ireland,” says O’Keeffe. “You can just imagine the levels of psychological control.”

This year MRCI has identified five new cases of forced labour in Ireland and 150 cases in the past six years. Forced labour is defined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as a situation in which a person is deceived into entering work and cannot leave without punishment or the threat of punishment. It is essentially the highest octane of worker exploitation. MRCI says most cases happen in domestic settings, restaurants and catering and that existing legislation appears to be failing victims.

Trafficking for forced labour is a criminal offence under the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008, but prosecution would appear to require proof of movement of victims across borders for exploitation. “In practice, we’re finding it very hard to provide the evidence [relating to trafficking],” says O’Keeffe, who says international experience supports a shift of focus away from the trafficking aspect and on to forced labour.

In the meantime, some cases are reaching employment-rights mechanisms. Muhammad Younis, a 57-year-old Pakistani who suffered gross exploitation while working as a chef at Poppadom restaurant in Clondalkin, says his horrific experience sent him into “a deep, dark well”.

Last week, the Labour Court ordered his employer, Amjad Hussein, trading as Poppadom, to pay Younis €91,000 as previously set out by a rights commissioner over breaches of employment rights. According to MRCI, which represented Younis, his case was one of forced labour and it involved threats, payment “well below” the minimum wage, and 77-hour working weeks.

“The employer also failed to renew Muhammad’s work permit, which rendered him undocumented in the State,” says MRCI. “He was forced to share a house with nine other workers in very poor conditions. He had to endure these degrading conditions for many years.”

Younis may or may not get his money – some employers find ways of avoiding paying. Younis is currently looking for a new job to support a large family in Pakistan.

Fiona (not her real name), a young woman from east Africa, alleges forced labour at a house in Dublin. For legal reasons, she cannot provide specific details of her case, but she says she experienced seriously abusive behaviour, including the confiscation of her passport by her employer, who was also African. She had “nowhere to run to”, and only after being hospitalised following major stress did she manage to get help. She is a member of MRCI’s domestic workers’ action group.

“When I listen to the stories of the others it’s like listening to my own story over and over again, you know?” says Fiona, now a student. “Some people in Ireland will be shocked – ‘this is unbelievable, it does not happen here, maybe somewhere else.”

MRCI says more powers must be granted to the Garda and the labour inspectors in the National Employment Rights Authority (Nera). Nera says its inspectors have “a wide range of powers” that can be used to identify situations where employees may be experiencing “severe employment difficulties”, including forced labour. “Where a Nera officer suspects that such exploitation exists, the matter would be referred to the Garda,” said a spokesperson, who said relevant statistics were unavailable.

O’Keeffe believes the labour inspectorate could play a crucial role in combating forced labour – but only with more teeth, as it legally has “ a limited role”. She points out that Ireland is also in breach of its international legal obligations because it is a signatory to the European Human Rights Convention, which provides protection against slavery and forced labour.

Victims of forced labour are missing out on psychological help and other official support services afforded only to those involved in anti-trafficking cases. “Sometimes people are worn down and physically sick because of the pressure,” says O’Keeffe. “They should be able to avail of all the supports laid out in the trafficking framework: recovery and reflection periods, temporary legal status in the country . . . so they can safely exit the situation, have a breather and consider their options, then maybe participate in criminal proceedings. You won’t actually get prosecutions unless people have protection.”

Stop the traffic: Forced labour law

Legislation passed in 2009 made it an offence to hold a person in slavery or subject them to forced labour in England and Wales. Previously, legislation outlawing forced labour was linked to trafficking, as is the case in Ireland. Campaigners say people here who are in situations of forced labour and who have not been trafficked, or where trafficking is difficult to prove, are not adequately protected.

Last year, Migrant Rights Centre Ireland commissioned legal opinion that found forced labour could be dealt with under the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008. But the organisation says gardaí have not investigated forced-labour cases without a trafficking element. In June 2010, the MRCI legal opinion was presented to the Department of Justice. A department spokesperson told The Irish Timesit had asked the Garda “to conduct an analysis of allegations of forced labour which have come to their attention” in order to identify “what problems exist and what legislative and administrative measures, if any, are required”.

The spokesperson added that activities constituting forced labour could be prosecuted under offences such as false imprisonment, blackmail, assault, the coercion offence in the Non-Fatal Offences Against the Person Act, offences under employment law and health and safety legislation, and immigration law.