Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) first came across forced labour through its Drop-In Centre in 2006. Forced labour is a form of slavery: severe labour exploitation, involving deception, coercion and sometimes trafficking of workers by unscrupulous employers.
Since 2006, MRCI has supported over 230 workers who were subjected to forced labour – in domestic work, restaurants, fishing, circuses, and agriculture – in Ireland. Workers told us how their passports were taken by their employers, how they were threatened, how they were paid a pittance, or not paid at all, for long hours of work. The treatment was so cruel it astounded us. It was hard to accept that not only was forced labour taking place in our society, but it was rife.
Together with workers who had experienced forced labour, MRCI began to campaign for laws to protect people who experienced this crime. MRCI and the Forced Labour Action Group used personal stories, street theatre, research, casework, strategic meetings and more to raise awareness and make change. Forced labour is now a crime in Ireland, and we have progressive laws and policies to prosecute employers and to protect victims.
However, challenges remain in the implementation of these laws and policies in order to eradicate all forms of forced labour in Ireland. It is incredible that no employer has yet been prosecuted for forced labour in Ireland. In Irish law we have a number of loopholes which enables employers to act with impunity. To date, no worker has received compensation for forced labour in Ireland and few workers have recouped the monies owed to them under Irish employment law.
Mohammed Younis, a chef in an takeaway in Dublin, worked for over seven years in a forced labour situation. He was isolated, worked 77 hours a week, and at one point earned just 55 cent an hour. The restaurant closed for Christmas Day, so he had the day off – his only holiday for the year. In 2010, MRCI assisted Mohammed to take his case to the Labour Court for non-payment of wages and other entitlements under Irish employment law. He was awarded €91,134. His employer refused to pay up. This case went the whole way to the Supreme Court and in July 2015, the court upheld Mohammed’s claim. His employer still refuses to meet his obligations to Mohammed, but faces no punishment for non-payment.
Sadly, there are many others like Mohammed who have been granted awards but have not seen any money. These awards are wages already earned; refusing to pay them is wage theft. Why would any worker take a claim to the labour courts if there was the possibility, or a reality, that they will never get a cent? The tragic thing is that this is for payment of monies owed to workers and not even compensation for the crime of forced labour.
In the Netherlands, there is a scheme to compensate workers. If the employer doesn’t pay, the government pays the workers and pursues the employer for the money. We need to introduce a scheme such as this in Ireland to reverse this injustice. We also need stronger penalties to sanction employers who commit wage theft, robbing workers of the monies owed to them from their labour.
Ten years on, it is clear not enough is being done to eradicate forced labour in Ireland. Its prevalence indicates that it is still profitable, and that the systems created to prevent it are simply not robust enough. To eradicate forced labour, we need an approach that mobilises workers to know and claim their rights, and that targets and changes the behaviour of employers. This, however, requires a new and different outlook. It requires investment in and empowerment of workers, moving from seeing people as just victims of a crime, to seeing them as workers with enforceable rights.
To tackle forced labour head on, we need to be proactive on a number of fronts. Employers who flout the law should be criminally prosecuted and made pay what they owe under employment law along with compensation to workers from their own pocket. We need to target problematic sectors using a multi-stakeholder approach that is intelligence-led, with workers at its heart. We need to regularise undocumented workers to reduce their vulnerability. We need to support the development of a culture of rights, through mobilising workers and educating employers. We need to identifying victims of trafficking for forced labour quickly, and ensure they are protected and empowered during and after identification.
Only then will we come closer to eradicating forced labour and ensuring that every worker is treated as someone with tangible, enforceable rights.
Click here to see an illustrated timeline of MRCI's work against forced labour.