Slaving away

Michael Lanigan

Deputy InDepth Editor

In the wake of the Lambeth scandal, it is evident that a misguided perception of modern slavery is being conveyed by the media, skewing vital facts for the sake of an attractive scoop. In a case that saw three women kept in bondage for thirty years, the British press focused on the purported political collective aspect of the story, while ignoring the crux of the matter: slavery and the legal systems stimulating its growth. Their eye for a great headline reassured unsettled readers into thinking that exploitation is scarce in our society, only conducted amongst cults and extremists.

This has been an immoral calming of nerves, allowing us to believe that such a repulsive act is alien to our society and that we would never allow it to occur without taking appropriate action. Yet we permit it to pass under our radar daily, blind to the fact that it is here on our doorstep and in the institutions that we lovingly support.

What surprised everybody is how the detention of the women in Lambeth evaded local attention for so long. However, in order to write an eye-catching tale, major news outlets omitted any explanations or details which would inform viewers as to the actual facts behind forced labour.

The truth is that detainment comes through debt bondage, withholding identification, physical threats and psychological manipulation, such as insisting that the victim cannot seek justice in their new country due to an illegal status, or lack of work permit. These are the basic factors which sale conscious tabloids ignore in their coverage of the issue. As a result, there is no dissemination of sufficient information to help prevent further cases from occurring.

From an Irish viewpoint, prior to 28th June, the topic’s latency caused many to deduce that it was a non-existent subject in a contemporary Irish context. However, this date witnessed the revision of a legal loophole in the Employment Permits Act of 2003, in accordance with the International Labour Organisation’s Forced Labour Convention of 1930 (No. 29), and led to a brief period of interest.

However, once the legislation came into being, although not properly implemented, we assumed that there was no longer any reason to be concerned about that which we never really were to begin with. As a result, 28th June was not a day of abolition, despite the news depicting it as such. Hence, the matter petered out without any change to standards of practice in the workplace.

Actually, the problem is worsening in Ireland. The reason for this is that we continue to ignore key factors contributing to the cesspool of modern slavery. Irish racial and cultural divisions help its effective concealment in plain sight. Rampant consumerism tries to embellish mass production with a façade of benevolence, while companies such Urban Outfitters and Starbucks utilise exploited labourers, despite charitable fair trade banners. These are inconvenient items to tackle, because they are crucial luxurious factors in established capitalist society.

“Rampant consumerism tries to embellish mass production with a façade of benevolence, while companies such Urban Outfitters and Starbucks utilise exploited labourers, despite charitable fair trade banners.”

 Thanks to this complacency, slavery is rife in Ireland, from the entertainment industry to restaurants and especially amongst domestic workforces. Yet why are we so willing to wave off the idea that slavery is still alive in our country? In truth, we know it exists, but shamelessly accept its economic viability, turning a blind eye out of inertia. Like Pontius Pilate, we absolve ourselves from direct associations in order to continue our standard routine.

Playing upon this reluctance, the term “slavery” became overly sensationalist according to shamelessly pompous media sources. Sensible analysts scorn the word, if not the idea, stripping it down to diluted semantics, straying from the core subject and misleading the public in the process. Our passive attitudes and obsession with consumerism encourages major businesses to carry on exploiting voiceless victims. Take for example IKEA, the internationally adored company who have turned affordable shopping into a large subculture. This is a company guilty of using slave labour in East Germany during the 1980s. Yet we still flood to their stores, especially with Christmas looming, satisfied by their public statement of regret, accompanied by a donation to research on the subject (research, not action). It is hardly a commendable act of penance, considering IKEA were more than aware of these unpaid prisoners and made pathetic efforts to ensure they received their entitled wages.

The obvious question is what can we actually do to fight corporate exploitation? We all know the answer, but unfortunately it’s not convenient. Despite what they might lead themselves to believe, most people do not care about methods of labour, provided the furniture is cheap. Forgive and forget. It’s too late to let IKEA’s shady past hinder modern consumerist requirements. Donate a few coins to charity, reassure yourself that you can make a difference that way and then sleep at ease in an IKEA MALM bed (only ¤98).

Then there is Qatar and its successful bid for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Due to erect twelve stunning venues for the event, Irish corporations are seizing the lucrative opportunity through the Project Qatar campaign, while promising to honour workers’ rights. This is despite the notorious kafala system, which allows visa-sponsoring employers to withhold migrant workers passports, giving these labourers no hope of seeking fair justice. This is not a niche strategy; this is 1.3 million unskilled migrant workers, 94% of the labour force in Qatar alone. Nevertheless, hazard a guess as to what the controversial debate of the Qatar games is: Which season will suit playing conditions, winter or summer? Major networks will broadcast the games. There will be no boycott, but we do have the Irish contractor’s word on protecting rights in a country where the odds are stacked against social justice. The International Trade Union Confederation estimates 4,000 workers will die before the opening game with a current average of one death per day, typically heart attacks attributed to the intense weather and workload. But how will the healthy, well-paid footballers fare in the punishing heat? That one really keeps me awake at nights, even in my handsome MALM bed (still only ¤98).

The fact of the matter is that this heinous violation of human rights does not need to conceal itself, because we allow ourselves to wallow in blissful denial. Why stop if nobody is expressing concern? There is no altruism because our desire for trivial entertainment prevails, proven for every country investing in the turgid Project Qatar.

The truth is that Ireland has attempted to challenge overseas exploitation in the June amendment by writing in a clause to indict perpetrators outside our jurisdiction. This is however, a token gesture. If our government can’t deal with internal exploitation, then what hope do they have internationally?

Though Ireland ranks 160th in the 2013 Global Slavery Index, and the forced labour bill passed in June theoretically eradicated migrant exploitation in Ireland, there are currently 340 documented cases of non-Irish workers in illegal servitude and over 24,000 more vulnerable to this scourge. What does this say about a modern and progressive Ireland? It says that we are little better than the ante-bellum slave states of America and far worse than a 21st century nation ought to be. Considering Muhammad Younis still awaits compensation for seven years of forced labour, we can hardly congratulate ourselves. He is but one of many similar cases, having worked as a tandoori chef in his cousin, Amjad Hussein’s restaurant Poppadom in Clondalkin under threat of deportation. With his passport seized by Hussein, Younis earned 51c per hour, working over 77 hours per week, with his only holiday being Christmas Day.

After finally managing to escape these conditions, Younis went before the Labour Court and won his case, with ¤92,000 in compensation due. However, in August 2012, the High Court revoked the ruling under the 2003 Permits Act, which does not legally require Hussein to hand over the reparations. At present, Younis is pending an appeal to the Supreme Court, which will likely occur in 2014 and even at that, might require a further appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. Meanwhile, a recent Google search reveals that Poppadom is still going steady in their business.

While the Oireachtas initially stated outright that this violation of human rights meant an effective scheme was in dire need of rapid devising and implementation, today our government has demoted the issue to that of a lesser priority. Now, six months onwards, the purported legislative change remains a promise, but nothing exceptional has come to volition.

The bill to protect migrant’s work permits arrived, but the problem of forced labour remains an ever-present matter glossed over. If we are not motivated to take issue with this now, then how many more cases along the lines of Younis’ will it require before we feel moved to action?