Modern slavery - antiquity down your street

27 Apr 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 6 Jul 2015

(l-r) Yoke Farm director Tim Keeling, Justice Minister David Ford, Júlia Tomás from Unchosen and Law Centre NI director Glenn Jordan
(l-r) Yoke Farm director Tim Keeling, Justice Minister David Ford, Júlia Tomás from Unchosen and Law Centre NI director Glenn Jordan

For most people the word slavery will evoke the distant and disconnected past. But for some people it is a reality in the here and now.

Slavery is a human problem that eventually got suffocated by civilisation. It doesn’t make sense as part of modern society.

The idea that it could be going on in the local community - even the street where you live - is hard to reconcile given the broad range of freedoms the vast majority of Northern Ireland enjoys.

Yet forced labour is an ongoing problem and, while serious rather than widespread, we can only guess at its true scale.

And it does not only affect unseen Chinese men in cannabis factories or young Roma women from poor countries pushed into daytime begging on the streets. Modern slavery is something that cuts across age groups and nationalities.

As if to illustrate the point, last weekend the Law Centre (NI) and anti-trafficking charity Unchosen showed three short films at the Queen’s Film Theatre, as part of Belfast Film Festival, based on true stories that illustrate the nature of some parts of forced labour in the UK.

During the panel discussion afterwards a Northern Irish woman came forward to say that she had recently been a victim of modern slavery.

She had come to the event seeking help; her unexpected announcement was clearly not something intended for such an open forum, and instead she spoke with the Law Centre and Unchosen afterwards.

A more forceful and troubling reminder of the what-lies-beneath nature of this issue would be difficult to imagine.

Moving pictures

The films this revelation followed all showed different sides of modern slavery – a young boy trafficked to London to beg on the streets, an older man who escaped his own industrial captivity to be left wondering what happened to his friend and companion, and the award-winning Yoke Farm, a tale of a Lithuanian man named Jurgis who finds himself working on a farm in desperate conditions.

Yoke Farm was based on a composite of different experiences of victims of forced labour in Northern Ireland, including the key fact that police uncovered the issue thanks to the intervention of a shopkeeper who realises the people selling him free range eggs are not so scrupulous when he is passed a note reading “help”.

Justice Minister David Ford attended the event, addressing the audience ahead of the screening to say his department is putting together plans to modernise judicial opposition to this present-day affliction.

Doing so – according to recent recommendations from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation and other campaign groups, including the organisers of this event - will involve recognising that forced labour overlaps with, but is distinct from, human trafficking; creating a clear modern slavery framework; and using partnerships between various agencies alongside that framework to battle the problem.

He said: “The key issue is to make people aware of the reality of trafficking in this country and across Europe. Trafficking is all about people who don’t see humanity in others, who see profit in others and who see people as commodities.

“Hence the term modern slavery, because that is what it is. It seems these days there are more people in slavery around the world than when William Wilberforce abolished it [200 years ago].

“It could be operating literally within a few hundred yards of where we are now.

“Victims are not just from either gender, they are from both. They are not from any particular age range – in Northern Ireland last year we rescued people between the ages of three and 59 – and they are not from any particular nationality. People are trafficked within the UK, and right across Europe and the world.”

An unexpected issue

Appeals to “raise awareness” can often sound fuzzy, even aimless, but in this case it is really the best and only solution to something that seemingly cannot be pinned down – a fact that exposes the stubbornness of the problem.

The key factor behind forced labour is not poverty but vulnerability.

This can and often does coincide with people who have been trafficked – who can be here illegally and fear deportation, or be here legally but with no support network, little understanding of the language, and the feeling of nowhere to turn. Often, in cases where people are brought from abroad to here to live in squalor and do nothing but work, their passports are taken away by gangmasters.

However, these are not the only routes to forced labour. Amoral slavers are opportunists using a variety of methods – threats, violence, anything – to instil a sufficient level of fear on their victims so that they have control.

There have even been instances of people working as forced labour in legitimate businesses, such as factories or warehouses, right alongside local people who are members of the regular labour market and who are completely unaware that some of their colleagues are being exploited to this degree.

The JRF’s recent report shows examples of slavery in many legitimate industries across Northern Ireland.

In addition, many victims are so worried about the consequences of their circumstances being uncovered that they will avoid the authorities themselves. Some do not even realise they are the victims of anything illegal.

It is very difficult – if not impossible – to characterise modern slavery. The lack of clear patterns as to when and where it occurs leave the police and other justice officials on the back foot.

Resourceful immorality

Unchosen’s Júlia Tomás spoke with Scope to say that “traffickers and illegal gangmasters are always one step ahead of the authorities.”

She said further that we simply do not know how closely the cases that do get uncovered represent the true nature of the problem.

When asked what role the general public has to play in dealing with this, she said a degree of vigilance was the most important thing.

“We need to change a few perspectives and mentalities. If you see people from abroad begging on the street you maybe need to think twice, and wonder if they are really there through choice.

“This is especially true of children. If anyone sees a child begging they can be very confident they are being exploited, for the simple reason that children are supposed to be in school.”

She outlined numerous other possible red flags for exploitation – including even a lot of mattresses being piled outside a house, which the police say can be a tell-tale sign of people being forced to live in squalor, and a visible one at times because dodgy gangmasters like to regularly move their victims from house to house in a bid to stay clear of the law.

“They are so clever, they are always ahead of us, their networks are always evolving and changing.

“This is a terrible problem. I’ve been working at it for years now but I don’t think I can truly empathise with the victims. The circumstances can be almost impossible to understand.”

So, that’s it. Slavery is not something the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland might ever expect to encounter. However, it just might happen, and the best – and only – thing most of us can do is keep it in mind.

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