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Unaccounted: forced labour in Northern Ireland

Today we are delighted to welcome our first contributor from Northern Ireland, Khara Glackin.  Khara is currently the Immigration and Employment law solicitor at the South Tyrone Empowerment Programme (S.T.E.P); she also sits on the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s Ethnic Minority Reference Group and is a member of the Northern Ireland Strategic Migration Partnership Board.  Khara is a qualified Barrister and subsequently cross-qualified as a solicitor.  Since 2008 she has lived and worked in Northern Ireland, initially working in Belfast private practice at leading Firms, prior to joining the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission as a solicitor in October 2009.  Khara has a keen interest in human trafficking issues and does an extensive amount of legal training and public speaking in the area to various statutory agencies and NGO’s.  

Cases of trafficking for forced labour are occurring in the United Kingdom and Ireland. As the majority of people trafficked for forced labour are not identified, and not afforded adequate assistance, their rights are ultimately unprotected.

According to the latest global estimate by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) published in June 2012, nearly 21 million people are victims of forced labour exploitation across the world, including 880,000 in the European Union member states. In the UK, there were 421 potential victims of trafficking for forced labour identified in 2011.  The ILO observed that even though forced labour is now widely recognised as a crime it is ‘rarely prosecuted because of the difficulties in articulating the various offences that constitute forced labour in national laws and regulations’. There are various forms of forced labour in existence. These include bonded labour, involuntary servitude, domestic servitude and child labour. Victims of trafficking for forced labour often experienced restricted freedom of movement, permanent physical and psychological harm, isolation from families and communities, and reduced opportunities for personal development. Victims are often very wary of law enforcement and psychologically dependent on their traffickers. Child victims are denied educational access, which reinforces a cycle of poverty and illiteracy.

 The British Government recognised that forced labour is a problem within the United Kingdom and under Section 71 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009: ‘holding another person in slavery or servitude, or requiring another person to perform forced or compulsory labour’ is a criminal offence. However, convicting traffickers has been very difficult and there have been few prosecutions. To date, there has only been one conviction in Northern Ireland. This involved the case of Matyas Pis, who was convicted of trafficking for sexual exploitation. There are presently no convictions of trafficking for forced labour in Northern Ireland. As of 22 March 2012, there were four active cases involving offences of human trafficking, though the nature of these cases is not known. Two are before Belfast Crown Court, one is before Belfast Magistrates’ Court and one is before Antrim Magistrates Court.

One of the main problems in relation to preventing forced labour is the extent to which the UK legal system characterises the notion of rights protection. The enforcement of individual employment rights rests extensively on employees knowing and understanding their rights in addition to taking it upon themselves to enforce those rights; making every attempt to remedy any problems regarding their employment. They are expected to possess the necessary awareness of their overall employment rights despite the fact that there is no one charged with informing migrants of their rights. This presumption of knowledge in itself leads to forced labour situations; especially where language barriers exist and for vulnerable undocumented migrant workers.

Due to insecure and potentially vulnerable situations, undocumented migrant workers can be an easy target for exploitation. The main concern facing these workers include employers not fulfilling visa sponsorship obligations, including delays in paying wages. In some cases, workers are not paid at all. The primary practices that violate workers’ rights reported by various first responders in Northern Ireland, such as the Gangmasters Liscencing Authority, are:

  • False promises about the nature and type of work by recruiters and sponsors;
  • Unmet employer obligations on wages and working conditions;
  • Inadequate food or sleep, including squalid overcrowded accommodation;
  • Threats of deportation;
  • Indebtedness to recruiters or moneylenders who extract high fees; and
  • Withheld passports withheld by employers.

The establishment of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) on 1 April 2005 by the Gangmasters (Licensing) Act 2004 has assisted greatly in dealing with forced labour issues in Northern Ireland. The GLA was set up to prevent the exploitation of workers, particularly by debt bondage and forced labour and to improve health and safety standards, in what had become an unregulated area of employment. This agency regulates the supply of workers to the agricultural, horticultural and shellfish industries. Employment agencies and other labour providers working in those fields have had to be licensed by the authority since 1 October 2006. This means that certain standards have to be met, for example, paying national minimum wage to workers.

Research on forced labour in Northern Ireland conducted in January 2011 by the Institute of Conflict Research, STEP et al entitled “Exploiting Vulnerability” focused on the experiences individuals from various countries and ethnic backgrounds who experienced diverse forms of abusive and exploitative behaviour by their employers while working in a number of different employment sectors. The research identified a number of forced labour issues in the mushroom farming, fishing and catering industries. The research also found that individuals from Chinese, Filipino and Roma backgrounds appeared to be particularly vulnerable to exploitation in Northern Ireland. In some cases individuals were exploited by employers from their own ethnic community, but most were employed by members of the indigenous Northern Irish population. The report made a number of recommendations which could improve the identification of cases of forced labour and ways of tackling the problem. These include:

  • Extending the remit of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority to include all forms of labour providers (beyond the agricultural, horticultural and shellfish industries);
  • Raising awareness of the issue in Northern Ireland through groups like the Race Equality Forum, the Department for Employment and Learning’s working group on migrant workers, trade union networks and employers’ bodies such as Business in the Community;
  • Promoting a publicity campaign similar to that of the Blue Blindfold Campaign of the UK Human Trafficking Centre. The campaign is designed to encourage police authorities, front line professionals and the public to open their eyes to human trafficking; raise awareness, provide training and encourage information sharing worldwide and support victims;
  • Increasing capacity to regulate and inspect workplaces; and
  • Sustaining the work of organisations in the community, and voluntary sectors to provide support and assistance to victims of forced labour.

To date, various mechanisms have been implemented to raise awareness of labour trafficking. These include a national Crimestoppers campaign launched in January 2013, the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) education pack on human trafficking rolled out to 14-17 year olds in schools, and the “Visitor or Victim?” information leaflet and poster developed by the Organised Crime Task Force, displayed in key places where victims go (ports, health centres and railway stations).

An informal working group, of which I am a member, has also been established to facilitate engagement between NGOs and the government on human trafficking, share information and provide a way in which NGOs can assist government and law enforcement agencies in their work on addressing human trafficking. An online training package for police to assist in recognising the signs of trafficking is in place, and the Health and Social Care Board are also undertaking to raise awareness of staff in hospitals regarding vulnerable adults.

Concurrently, there is a great deal of emphasis placed on women trafficked for sex work at the detriment of other vulnerable individuals trafficked for forced labour. When providing training on this issue, it is important to make individuals aware that human trafficking does not only involve sexual exploitation. Current knowledge is biased toward trafficking for sexual exploitation and research is overly focused on this area. The need to emphasise the existence of labour exploitation is essential and conditions of forced labour in all industries need to be properly addressed. Potential trafficking indicators should be discussed and the current legislation in place used for dealing with this issue. Awareness-raising is also vital in this area as a mechanism for combating trafficking for labour exploitation.

A number of actions could be taken to assist in addressing this grave problem, these include:

  • Any strategy to combat trafficking and forced labour should be embedded in comprehensive governmental policies with a focus on rights-based migration regulations and the regulation of private employment agencies.
  • There is the need for stronger labour regulations, more effective labour inspection, monitoring and strengthened labour institutions. This can be achieved by extending the overall remit of the GLA to include all types of labour providers.
  • Workers need to be empowered and given support and assistance before they reach the point of ending up in a forced labour situation.
  • Further in-depth research into trafficking for forced labour in the UK is required to establish best possible responses to the problem. The research should take into account the variety of industries involved as well as the nationalities and the legal status of migrant workers.

Trafficking for forced labour is indeed a major concern and needs to be properly addressed with some urgency. Although it may appear to be a moderately minor issue presently in terms of overall case volume, this issue needs to be forcefully tackled forthwith rather than to wait until it becomes a more extensive and widespread problem.

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