Thursday, 27 October 2011

Slavery is alive and well in Northern Ireland

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation [JRF] has recently released a report on forced labour in Northern Ireland.

This modern day form of slavery is estimated by the International Labour Organisation to affect at least twelve million people worldwide each year.

One year on from the introduction of new laws outlawing the practice JRF were keen to discover the scale of the problem in the six counties.  Doing so was difficult, migrant workers at the bottom of the working ladder being scared to speak out for fear of being forced back home to face even poorer working conditions. Workers in parts of the mushroom industry, mainly young women from Eastern Europe, were identified as being amongst the most vulnerable.

Six factors have been identified in forced labour:
  • Threats or physical harm
  • Restricting movement, including confinement to a workplace
  • Withholding wages
  • Retaining the worker’s passport
  • Debt bondage in which someone works to pay off a debt incurred securing work
  • Threatening to denounce a worker to the authorities

Anti-Slavery International believes the presence of two or more factors is evidence of forced labour. Employers engaging in such practices are committing a criminal act under Section 71 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 that came into force in Northern Ireland, England and Wales on April 6th 2010.
This makes it an offence to ‘hold another person in slavery or servitude, or require another person to perform forced or compulsory labour.'
“We found examples of threats and actual violence when workers stood up for themselves by complaining that the promises they had been made before leaving home to work in Northern Ireland were not being fulfilled. Rates of pay, employment and accommodation conditions were all much worse than had been promised and leaving to find work elsewhere was difficult as some had their passports taken away from them,” said one of the report’s authors Neil Jarman.

“There’s no holiday, sick, overtime, unsocial hours or maternity pay,” said one worker who wished to remain anonymous. Where women reported being pregnant they immediately discovered themselves without work. 

The JRF, which also found that in order to avoid the reaches of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority some gangmasters had abandoned their agriculture operations in favour of construction, is now hoping to use the report to get forced labour onto the policy agenda locally. Jarman believes that it’s only a matter of time before there’s a criminal prosecution and he’s further convinced that the situation in Northern Ireland will have parallels in other parts of the UK.

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