Modern-day slavery is alive-and-kicking among some workers in Northern Ireland’s fishing, mushroom and catering industries, a report has warned.
The research undertaken between June 2009 and December 2010 by a team at the Institute for Conflict Research for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation revealed that some migrants to Northern Ireland, who were mainly of Filipino and Romanian Roma origin, were being subjected to severe exploitation and forced labour conditions.
Practices included poor working conditions, low pay, restricted movement and verbal and physical abuse. Modern-day slavery was linked less to a specific gender, age or nationality and more to how vulnerable they were in terms of lack of English language skills and local knowledge and limited access to social networks, the report said.
Migrants were exploited both by Northern Irish employers as well as members of their own communities, but the study found that, in many cases, victims put up with their situation as the low wages and poor conditions were better than the options available to them in their home countries.
Some migrants were aware that they were being systematically exploited, but felt they had little choice but to continue working until they felt able to move on or were no longer able to accept the conditions under which they were forced to labour.
For others, their legal status meant they could only take work in the black economy and so would be susceptible to similar abuse and exploitation by other employers. A key problem was that exploited people were often left with only limited options as little support was available to them.
The UK government has recognised that forced labour is a problem and made ‘holding another person in slavery or servitude, or requiring another person to perform forced or compulsory labour’ a criminal offence under Section 71 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
But the report said: “It will take time before the new law has an impact and the problem of forced labour begins to be addressed through the criminal justice systems. In the meantime, emphasis should be put on raising awareness of the issue; identifying further examples of coercive and exploitative employment practices; and providing support, advice and assistance to people who are or have been subjected to forms of forced labour.”