Modern day slavery or forced labour in Northern Ireland has been highlighted in research by the Institute for Conflict Studies for a Joseph Rowntree Foundation report. The research identified a number of problems of forced labour in the mushroom farming, fishing and catering industries as well as more isolated problems in a variety of other casual work environments.
The research found that individuals from a small number of national or ethnic backgrounds (Chinese, Filipino, Roma) appear to be particularly vulnerable to exploitation in Northern Ireland, although individuals of a wide range of nationalities have been and are being exploited.
The research did not identify gender as a key factor that particularly increased the likelihood of being exploited through forced labour, although exploitation in some employment sectors was more likely to be gender specific than others.
In some cases people were exploited by employers from their own ethnic community, but most people who were being seriously exploited were employed by members of the indigenous Northern Irish population who were willing to abuse the vulnerability that some new migrants experience on arrival in a strange country.
The exploitation through forced labour that was encountered was not particularly associated with human trafficking. Rather people’s vulnerability to exploitation through forced labour was more likely to be associated with factors such as an individual’s legal status, their English language skills, a lack of access to advice and information, and an absence of appropriate community-based support networks. Furthermore, being subjected to forced labour conditions may further increase an individual’s marginalisation and vulnerability.
The International Labour Organization has identified six broad categories of experience that are considered as indicators of forced labour. And the research found evidence of each of the six forms of behaviour in Northern Ireland.
The indicators are: threats or actual physical harm to the worker; restriction of movement and confinement, to the workplace or to a limited area; debt bondage, where the worker works to pay off a debt or loan, and is not paid for their services; the withholding of wages or excessive wage reductions that violate previously made agreements; the retention of passports and identity documents so that the worker cannot leave or prove their identity and status; and the threat of denunciation to the authorities, where the worker is of irregular immigration status.
Neil Jarman, lead researcher from the Institute for Conflict Studies, said: “We found that people would put up with working in very poor conditions and extreme levels of exploitation because it was better than the options available at home. Although only a small number of migrant workers are affected, it is vital that vulnerable workers are protected from exploitation by employers.”
The report recommends raising awareness and understanding of the issue of forced labour among trade unions, employers’ bodies and within key government departments in Northern Ireland in order to develop a strategy to address the problem. Community-based support networks are important for exploited migrants and the availability of advice and information can also help reduce the levels of exploitation.
This article first appeared in the Labour Research Department – Fact Service 09 June 2011