BLOG: forced labour in Northern Ireland


Last year, forty-five men and women were recovered from human trafficking in Northern Ireland. Thirty-two of those had been exploited for cheap or free labour. 

by Conor Adams

When we think of human trafficking, people often imagine young women being exploited in illegal brothels by lonely old men. However, in Northern Ireland, there is a significant proportion of victims who are forced into cheap or free labour. We rarely consider the slave trade servicing our main industries right here in Northern Ireland.

One of the affected industries in Northern Ireland is the farming industry. Labourers in this sector face long, tedious hours, hand-picking mushrooms for example. As there is little desire for people to work in this hard industry, migrants are forced into the mushroom industry with completely inadequate pay. Most trafficking victims will be housed nearby without access to the wider community. The latest figures suggest that pay in this sector can be anything from as little as £2 per hour, for smaller mushrooms, to £7 for larger ones. However, this can be based on commission or paid through an agency, and often workers don’t actually see the money they’ve made.

Similarly, fishing, with its unsociable hours and dangerous working conditions, sees countless cases of young men being forced to work for next to no pay, if any pay at all, onboard the same boats they’re made to live on. With the difficulty in regulating who is actually onboard sea-faring vessels, victims of trafficking can be stowed away for months or years before being discovered by the authorities. For some, they will never set foot on dry land again.

This naturally begs the question: how does someone end up in such a blatantly exploitative situation?

Well, for many people who come to Northern Ireland, they have been promised work. Usually, they will apply for a job in their native country and are enticed by the better pay, better living conditions, and greater opportunities to thrive in Northern Ireland than in their home country.

However, on arrival, they may discover that their promised job does not exist. These people are forced into working unsociable, long hours for labour-intensive industries. Often the victims do not get paid proper wages (or even paid at all) and they have no access to this pay other than through the employer (ie a bank account operated by the employer for the employee). While the victim may recognise the danger they are in, they have no way to escape. The employer may seize the victim’s passport and identifying documents on arrival to stop them fleeing the country. Besides, their housing is likely supplied by their employers and they would be left homeless if they left their job.

Accommodation is so often tied up in the work that a victim of forced labour is involved in, and the accommodation will not be up to a high living standard that you and I might enjoy. There have been reports of ten or fifteen people sharing an apartment with no electricity or access to a lavatory. Food coming from left-overs in factories or out-of-date stock from shops. Labourers have been kept in caravans without heating or power. Victims are locked in their place of work; onboard a vessel, or in a factory. As a result, the resident’s health suffers and their ability to work decreases. It is a seemingly unending spiral of neglect and abuse that demeans people.

For a new migrant residing in Northern Ireland, chances are, they won’t have many contacts in the community or people looking out for them. So when they are approached by an employer promising a home and a pay cheque, there is no one around to verify this offer for them – and there are less people to notice that they are gone. If they came here for work, and struggle to find it, they may accept any form of work just to guarantee refuge in this country. The situation they’ve left at home may be bad enough to justify abusive conditions as long as it is in our safe, peaceful, wealthy country. Some may not have a legal right to work in this country and will therefore work in unsavoury conditions just to get by.

The land-border between Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland can be exploited by traffickers as many people being trafficked are unaware of there being two separate jurisdictions on this island. An example of this comes from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation Report (2011) :

Paola came to the Republic of Ireland from Brazil to work in a meat-packing company but was later moved to work across the border in Northern Ireland, although she did not realise she was in another country. Accommodation was provided by the employer, which Paola shared with 15 other people, and £50 was deducted from her salary for accommodation. After two months the employer provided separate accommodation for the men and for women and couples. Paola’s employer attempted to control the movement and visibility of his employees: she was told that Newry was very dangerous and not to go out at night, and all workers were told that they could not be seen in groups leaving the house to walk to work, as this could be dangerous. Paola remained in the house a lot as she was fearful of going out. She remained in this employment for 15 months until she could no longer endure the level of control and low wages and left.

Read Radu’s story of labour exploitation here. 

So where’s the hope in all this? How do we stop this heinous abuse of people?

This is where the likes of No More Traffik step into the picture. As an organisation, No More Traffik is, “a movement of people and communities committed to stopping human trafficking.” No More Traffik runs programmes that raise the profile of victims of human trafficking and seeks the end of the world’s second largest criminal industry. Pairing with local authorities, No More Traffik has trained Border Force agents, PSNI recruits, medical and legal staff, social workers, religious leaders and community members to recognise the signs of trafficking and help stop trafficking right at the ports in this country.

Last year, forty-five victims were recovered and freed from lives of slavery right here in Northern Ireland. Stopping trafficking is possible, and while the statistics are shocking, we have the resources to end this crime against humanity.

What can I do to help?

Get out there and make your voice heard. You live in one of the safest places on Earth. You enjoy free education, health care, and access to the world 24/7 via the Internet. If you are reading this article, you have all the resources you need to get involved.

Make a fuss, let our politicians know that this is an issue that has to stop.

Get out on the streets, tell people about what’s going on under our noses.

Join a Stop the Traffik group – there are eight community groups across Northern Ireland who meet regularly to raise awareness and promote change in their local communities.

If you think you know of someone who is a victim to human trafficking, call 101, 999 or 0800 555 111 to remain anonymous.

Stopping trafficking is possible, and we can be the generation who do it.