Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Raising issue of forced labour under Topical Issues

Speaking Under 'Topical Issues' Tuesday January 17th 2012

Aodhán: I had hoped the Minister for Justice and Equality would be present but I am quite sure the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, will deal with the matter and take it to the Minister's desk.

I will not dwell too long on the issue of forced labour as the Minister of State is very familiar with it. She understands the industries involved. There is an urgent need to criminalise forced labour. The Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, some of whose representatives are in the Visitors Gallery, has recorded 169 cases of forced labour over the past six years, but we know this is just the tip of the iceberg. Without a law against forced labour, victims will not be identified and unscrupulous employers will continue to engage in their current behaviour. Asking a victim of forced labour to pursue his rights through the existing legislation, be it health and safety legislation or employment legislation, as has been suggested, is deeply problematic. The experience of victims to date is that they do not receive protection or justice, despite these so-called protections being in place. Not one person has been prosecuted for any of the offences in forced labour cases. This reinforces the requirement for a stand-alone offence of forced labour.

The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, is due to make a decision shortly regarding any legislative and administrative measures required to address deficiencies in the law in this area. We need clarification in this regard. We need to bring Ireland into line using its legal commitments at EU and international levels. The Minister of State understands what these commitments are. We ask that the Minister outline urgently the Government's plans to criminalise forced labour in Ireland and protect the most vulnerable of workers in this Republic.

Minister Kathleen Lynch: I thank both Deputies for raising the issue. As they rightly said, it is very serious. I am responding on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter.

There are a number of measures in place to prevent exploitation and forced labour in Ireland. The International Labour Organisation's definition of forced labour comprises two basic elements: the work or service is exacted under the menace of a penalty and it is undertaken involuntarily. Forced labour cannot be equated simply with low wages or poor working conditions.

In addition to the range of employment law enacted to protect workers from exploitation generally, the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008, which came into effect on 7 June 2008, criminalises the trafficking of persons for the purpose of labour exploitation, including forced labour. The term "traffics" is broadly defined in the Act. For instance, an offence may be committed under the Act by providing a person with accommodation or employment in order to exploit that person for forced labour if coercion or deception is used. An offence does not require cross-border movement or illegal entry into the State. The human trafficking investigation and co-ordination unit of An Garda Síochána works closely with labour inspectors attached to the National Employment Rights Authority on cases where there are allegations of labour exploitation. Since 7 June 2008, a number of cases of alleged human trafficking for labour exploitation have been investigated by An Garda Síochána - 19 cases in 2009, 19 cases in 2010 and 12 cases in 2011. To date, no proceedings for the offence of human trafficking for labour exploitation have been commenced in this jurisdiction. Three investigation files having been submitted to the law officers. Directions for no prosecution have been received in two of these cases. Additional information has been sought and provided in respect of the third investigation file.

An Garda Síochána works closely with other police forces. For example, an intensive investigation was conducted in Ireland and evidence was transferred to Romania, where three Romanian men were sentenced to imprisonment for seven years, five years and five years, respectively, in December 2009 for the trafficking of Romanian nationals into Ireland for labour exploitation on farms in Wexford.

There is a wide range of training and awareness-raising activities ongoing with personnel in the public and private sectors likely to encounter victims of human trafficking for labour exploitation. In addition, since 2010, my Department has sanctioned over €25,000 in funding to the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland to assist it in its work in assisting migrants who may be victims of trafficking for labour exploitation or forced labour.

The Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) 2008 Act is primarily an anti-trafficking measure and was never intended to address all the exploitative phenomena outside the context of human trafficking. In some cases that have been referred to An Garda Síochána as human trafficking for labour exploitation, prospective evidence of other offences including immigration offences, employment permits offences, false imprisonment and assault has been uncovered. These matters remain under investigation. An analysis of allegations of forced labour coming to the attention of An Garda Síochána since the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008 came into effect is currently being examined in my Department so that any legislative and administrative measures required to address deficiencies, if any, in the protections against forced labour can be identified. In the event that a need for additional legislative measures is established, proposals will be brought to Government in the usual manner and as quickly as possible.

Aodhán: I know the Minister of State will take our comments back to his office. What I get from the answer is positive in that the Minister is not saying no legislative change is needed but that it may be needed and that, in due course, it may happen. However, the Minister of State can understand that, as Deputy Dowds said, we are effectively talking about slavery in this Republic currently. While the legislative process must take its course, that gives little satisfaction to those who are suffering. While we are talking about slavery, about 2012 and about a Republic, what we need to do is to ensure that any investigations into the necessity for legislation take place immediately and that legislation which we know is necessary is introduced as soon as possible. A dateline for that would be greatly appreciated.

Minister Kathleen Lynch: The Migrant Rights Centre Ireland and other such organisations are not so much the first port of call for people who find themselves in difficulties but usually the only port of call. It is amazing that we have four statutory agencies charged with responsibility in this area - four different units with wide-ranging roles - namely, the Legal Aid Board, the Garda Síochána, the Department of Health and the Department of Justice and Equality.

There is a huge issue in regard to information and communication around all of this. In the event that people are granted a work permit, which is usually how they come into the country, there must be information available in their own language. As the Deputies rightly said, these people probably have very limited English, although they might have much more grasp of it than our grasp of their native language. We must ensure the information that is necessary to keep these people safe in very vulnerable positions is distributed to them.

With regard to the legislation, while the governing Act may need to be tweaked, perhaps this can be done by alteration to existing legislation and may not require the sort of over-arching legislation we assume is necessary. However, there has to be a penalty for people who exploit others in this way.