Little support for Vietnamese migrants kept trapped in Irish grow houses

The Irish legal system has failed to protect vulnerable migrants brought over to work in the country’s growing cannabis trade.

InDepthIn January, a story began to circulate in national and international press outlets detailing the arrest and imprisonment of a 54-year-old Vietnamese woman, charged with unlawful possession of cannabis for supply and sale contrary to section 15 of the Misuse of Drugs Act (1977). This woman, originally from rural Vietnam, came to Europe in 2012 under the false pretence of gaining employment as a child-minder. Upon arriving, she found herself working as a cultivator in a grow-house, located on the Lagan Road Dublin Industrial Estate. It was then in November of the same year that Gardaí apprehended her, during a raid on the building, which had been padlocked from its outside.

In 2013, she applied for recognition as a victim of human trafficking, in accords with EU regulations. However, the High Court refused the claim and as a result, she remains in prison, awaiting an appeal to her case. Anti-Slavery International have cited her story as being but one part of a major problem in the Irish legislative system. Due to several legal loopholes, the hierarchies of various drug gangs remain unprosecuted, while the victims of forced labour remain unidentified as such, but are treated as criminals with few exceptions.

Growing trend

The Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland expanded upon this accusation in their 2014 study, entitled ‘Trafficking for Forced Labour in Cannabis Production: The Case for Ireland’. The paper expressed key concerns regarding the maltreatment and exploitative nature of Irish grow houses, while also addressing the shortcomings of Irish authorities in their investigations.

The report found a distinct pattern in the state’s prosecution of cannabis gardeners, showing that those of Chinese and Vietnamese origins frequently face harsher treatment at the hands of our judicial system, than that of similar workers from either Irish, or European backgrounds. Here, MCRI noted that between 2011 and 2013, there were 51 convictions for cultivation of cannabis in total, 25 of which involved Chinese and Vietnamese workers, while 18 were Irish nationals. However, there were five Irish growers incarcerated, as opposed to 24 south-east Asians.

Irish authorities have only begun to treat their investigations as cases of forced labour or human trafficking this year.

Furthermore, in 2013, the MRCI found that, overall, Gardaí had held 80 Asians in custody for drug-related offences, 36 of whom were charged for cannabis cultivation, while in 2014 a further 32 were imprisoned for the same reason. The rights group added to these statistics, by saying that 75% of these arrests fell under the category of exploitation and maltreatment, due to extremely poor housing conditions, confiscation of legal documents and low, if not any, payment whatsoever. Yet, despite this fact, Irish authorities have only begun to treat their investigations as cases of forced labour or human trafficking this year. Although this is a step in the right direction, the complex social and cultural reality behind the grow-house matte indicates that a drastic change of approach is still required.


For Ireland, the problem goes back to late 2007, when the Police Service of Northern Ireland conducted a major clampdown on grow-house activities around the Belfast area, during the award-winning sting, Operation Mazurka. This began in October, when the PSNI Drug Squad uncovered a previously unknown series of organised criminal networks linked to South-East Asian gangs, who were operating around the state capital.

The operation led to the closure of 78 cultivation sites, 86 arrests and a seizure of 26,207 cannabis plants, with an estimated street value of £15.5m. Police reports stated that there was almost a 100% incrimination rate, three quarters of whom held positions in the higher tiers of such organisations, receiving an average five-year sentence, while cultivators received two.

As a result, in the six months that followed, the PSNI reported that only four large-scale growing sites were shut-down nationwide as many of the organisations had pushed their operations down south of the border. Subsequently, this led to a skyrocketing in the number of plants seized across the Republic, which shot up from 100 in 2007, to 160 the following year, and 584 by 2012.

However, despite the reported rise in drug busts, Ireland remained a ripe ground for cultivation due to the increase in empty housing estates and warehouses from 2008 onwards. This made the acquiring of vacant properties in isolated areas significantly easier, as landowners appeared to accept cash in hand with fewer questions asked than would be the case over the border. Consequentially, these businesses could start afresh, also aided by the relative ease with which one could transport illegal migrants into the south without detection.

Restricted movement

For Vietnamese migrant workers, the move to Ireland came from two main areas, the first being that of their own large communities present in the UK. In areas where significant numbers live illegally in overcrowded areas, often with poor access to adequate healthcare, the offer of housing, food and money in exchange for cultivation was undoubtedly a highly beneficial opportunity. Transportation did not pose a significant concern, because with the lenient border control around the Holyhead ferry-lines, the necessity of producing either passports or legal documentation seems to have been a non-issue.

Cross-continental travel represents a greater gamble. Here, many prospective cultivators would pay thousands of euros to make the long trek from Vietnam to Ireland in order to earn money for their families at home. Whereas a typical salary for a farmer in Vietnam could see him, or her, earn €100 per annum, the prospect of handing over one large sum of money with the possibility of making €2,000 in any given year still proves a tempting reward for a temporary debt.

The demand remains high here because the job is a guarantee for anyone willing to accept an offer.

The demand remains high here because the job is a guarantee for anyone willing to accept an offer. Each grow-house will be set-up in the days preceding one’s journey, so upon arrival, everything is already in place, from the various working facilities, to the bypassed electrical meter to help in avoiding any external contact, or detection from authorities. Interestingly enough, despite frequent press reports, which suggest the presence of a hierarchical structure involving hired plumbers and electricians who can move in and out of the premise, testimony from sources with direct involvement in these spheres indicates otherwise. It would appear that the growers take these roles on themselves, developing a variety of skills quickly in the process as to remain self-sufficient to the best of their abilities.

The necessity of maintaining an internal structure requires certain measures be taken, the first of which is due to the confiscation of all legal documents. This assists in restricting movement. Furthermore, many workers are not aware of what country they are in, which, is further compounded by a lack of insight into the manner in which local authorities function. Therefore, a worker may be reluctant to come forward should they experience severe exploitation, or under-payment.

However, there is one additional deterrent frequently overlooked, which motivates migrant workers to remain in these work conditions. A factor that can explain part of the reason behind the higher rate of prosecution in Vietnamese and Chinese cases arises from the cultural significance held towards any debts owed. In the event of an arrest, although co-operation with Gardaí can provide a means of uncovering an illicit operation, it will not see reimbursement for the workers themselves.

As a result, a vicious circle emerges, leading many migrant workers to decide that prison is just another sacrifice in the process of paying off any debts, which is one of the primary aims in taking this job. To aid with investigations is to risk reducing future work opportunities, while the prospect of returning to Vietnam, whether through choice or deportation, without breaking even financially is to place upon one’s family a reputation of failure in their local communities. Therefore, the aim is to keep moving, if not in Ireland, then through similar jobs in Europe.

Whereas an Irish worker can frequently make bail while their superiors can anticipate cutting, running and relocating, for the illegal migrant growers, their lack of all social standing leaves them isolated and without any viable options. However, despite this fact, once a house is closed up they are the people left behind to endure the brunt of a legal system that often makes examples of them in a business that does not fold under such pressure.

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