Forced labour and slavery are not relics of the past and are not unknown in Ireland. According to Gráinne O’Toole of the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland: “Slavery remains a reality in Ireland. MRCI have uncovered over 180 cases of slavery in domestic, restaurant, agricultural, construction and entertainment sectors.” In 2006 it became national news that migrant workers employed picking mushrooms were being paid well below the minimum wage, forced to work up to 16 hours per day, with no overtime, and often for seven days a week. A group of mushroom pickers were eventually awarded €350,000 in total damages for having been dismissed by their employer for joining a trade union.
The most appalling example of forced labour in Ireland has been the notorious Magdalene Laundries. The laundries operated for decades, with clear involvement from the State, and saw young women abused, humiliated and forced to work against their will. The recently released McAleese Report has advanced the pursuit of accountability for what
Justice for Magdalenes have clearly characterised as forced labour. Taoiseach Enda Kenny, in his formal apology, said that:
in naming and addressing the wrong, as is happening here today, we are trying to make sure we quarantine such abject behaviour in our past and eradicate it from Ireland’s present and Ireland’s future.
The Government is currently finalising legislation that will criminalise forced labour and define it in accordance with International Labour Organisation Convention No. 29. The Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) (Amendment) Bill should become law in April 2013. Ireland has created corporate criminal liability for human trafficking under the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008, which this new act will amend. The courts can also exercise extraterritorial jurisdiction for this offence on the basis of nationality or residency, although as far as I am aware there have been no prosecutions to date.
The criminal law is only one avenue for addressing forced labour. States can wield huge influence on human rights and other social issues through their procurement policies, as Chris McCrudden explores in his book ‘Buying Social Justice’ (OUP, 2007). Australia is planning to amend its procurement laws in order to specifically combat forced labour and child labour in the supply chain. The State is said to be “the biggest consumer in the country, spending over $29 billion a year on goods and services”.
In Ireland, neither the National Procurement Service nor the National Public Procurement Policy Unit of the Department of Finance seem to consider human rights or social issues when tendering for goods or services. According to the McAleese Report, some 18% of the Magdalene Laundries’ business during the 1960s came from contracts directly with the State. A more convincing reason for action in this context could hardly be found.