Lifting the lid on a decade of domestic slavery in Ireland

‘Maria’ recently emerged from a 10-year ordeal, the longest case yet discovered in Ireland. Her experience suggests we have poor supports for dealing with such cases

“Maria”: “I didn’t know what to do.’ Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill

“Maria”: “I didn’t know what to do.’ Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill


‘Maria”, from west Africa, has recently come out of the longest case of domestic slavery to have come to light here. She has asked that her name not be used as her case is the subject of a Garda investigation.

Until 18 months ago, she had for 10 years looked after three children. She cooked for them and their parents, cleaned their clothes and their home. She bathed the children, toilet-trained them, put them to bed at night, got them up in the morning, brought them to school, made their lunches, played with them and, at night, slept on cushions on their bedroom floor.

The woman, who is now in her 30s, never had a day off through her 20s. She only ever had a few hours to herself each week to go to church, and she was never paid.

Sitting in the offices of Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) in Dublin this week, she speaks quietly, telling how, as the eldest in her family, she was attracted to a friend’s offer of work in Europe.

“She said she knew a woman who needed help looking after children. She told my father she would take care of me and send me to school. I had no clue where I was going. We arrived late at night in Dublin, and then we had a long drive.”

She was brought to a two-bedroom apartment where, for the next decade, she would work for a couple from the same part of her country. The mother, to whom she reported, is a professional and the father was away a lot.

“She used to leave in the morning and come back in the night. There were two children, a baby and a toddler. I cooked and cleaned. I was allowed to eat after them, and I cleaned up after dinner.”

She got to bed about midnight. The boy would wake at about 6am.

After a few months, she told the woman she wanted to go home. “She was angry. She started slapping me, said she had paid a lot of money for me to come and work. She said she would tell the police and I would go to jail.” She had Maria’s passport. When Maria asked for it back, or when she didn’t understand instructions, she said the woman beat her.

“No one talked to me in the house, only to tell me what to do. Her friends when they came, they didn’t talk to me. I didn’t talk to anyone outside. Only the children talked to me. When she beat me, they were crying and begging her to stop.”

Asked how she had felt about her situation, she says, “Sometimes I locked myself in the room. I was really depressed, but I didn’t know if what she was doing was wrong in this country. I didn’t know what to do. I just locked the room and cried.”

She didn’t know the international code for her country and so spoke to her family only once a year, when the woman would phone for her. “She put the phone on loudspeaker, so when my father ask how things are, I just said, ‘Everything is okay.’ ”

The woman later had a third child. In 2008, Maria began English classes locally. “I liked going to the school, but no one spoke to me, and I was not confident to talk to anyone.” She did make one friend, in whom she confided, and this friend began to give her the confidence to question the woman’s authority.

Eventually, as a result of often having to lift one of the older children, Maria developed acute back pain. When the woman would not bring her to a GP, Maria approached her pastor, who visited the house.

The woman of the house threatened to throw Maria out after this visit. Maria hid from her. Then, taking only her jacket, she left.

Her pastor brought her to the Garda. She had no documents, and the gardaí questioned why she had not left her situation sooner. She was housed in a women’s refuge in the town, and the Garda contacted the MRCI.

Gráinne O’Toole, its workplace-rights project leader, says that Maria’s is the longest case of slavery the centre has come across. “It is typical, though, in terms of the degradation, the physical and psychological abuse, the way in which Maria was made to feel absolutely worthless, the trauma and then being worked so hard, being so tired – the depression, helplessness and hopelessness.

“People are terrified and trapped, even if it does look from the outside like they could have left.”

Maria was identified as a victim of forced labour and trafficking, and the Garda moved quickly to take a statement from her. Like all in this situation, she was housed in a direct-provision hostel, intended for asylum seekers, where she has been since 2011. She gets an allowance of €19.10 per week, she is not allowed to work or engage in training and she has no idea what is happening with her case. The family she lived with have left the country.

The MRCI has identified more than 200 cases of forced labour since 2008 but has referred only 22 to the Garda, because, says O’Toole, the definition of forced labour had been so unclear as to make prosecution almost impossible.

Since July, however, the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Amendment Act 2013 includes a clear definition of forced labour. O’Toole is hopeful Ireland may see its first prosecution in coming months.

The lack of support for people who have escaped slavery is a continuing concern, however. O’Toole points to the recent case in London where three women were rescued by police and a charity working in collaboration from 30 years of abuse and forced labour.

“They were immediately brought to a safe place where they were surrounded by support, and have been given time to recover and reflect before deciding whether they want to take part in any criminal prosecution.

“Contrast that with what has happened to Maria. Her story was met with initial scepticism, and then she was abandoned in accommodation that is unsuitable for anyone long-term. We need to start doing the right thing here, supporting people, giving them time to be able to engage with the criminal justice system, if they want.”

A spokesman for the Department of Justice says it is up to each individual to determine the pace at which they want to engage with a criminal investigation. If they are illegally in the State, he says, they are entitled to a 60-day period of “recovery and reflection”, during which time they would not be deported.

O’Toole says that this is not happening and that victims are not getting the supports they need. She says it is difficult to know how widespread the issue is. The MRCI can no longer afford to proactively investigate the areas known elsewhere to use forced labour: agriculture, restaurants, domestic settings and some in the diplomatic corps who bring “workers” from their own countries.

“We hear all the time of suspected cases, but the only ones we can help are the ones who come to us.”

Maria says she would like to get some training and to get justice for what happened to her. “Sometimes if I think about what happened, I feel so bad. I feel afraid. I try not to talk about it, but I think a lot about it,” she says. “I have a lot in my head, too much.”

Migrant Rights Centre Ireland is holding a conference on Monday – Identifying Human Trafficking for Forced Labour: International and National Perspectives – at the Jury’s Inn on Custom House Quay, Dublin

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