Image: Panel line-up at QFT: Caroline Maguire, employment legal advisor, Law Centre (NI), left, with Tim Keeling, film director, ‘Yoke Farm’; Fidelma O’Hagan, anti-trafficking legal and policy advisor, Law Centre (NI) and Kasia Garbal, Migrant Workers Project Officer, Irish Congress of Trade Unions
By Brian Pelan, VIEW editor
What would you do if someone handed you a note with the words ‘HELP’ written on it?
This moral decision was at the heart of an excellent event at the Queen’s Film Theatre in Belfast at the weekend.
The event, organised by the Northern Ireland Law Centre and Unchosen (an anti-trafficking charity), focused on the subject of modern day slavery. Three short films, Yoke Farm, My Friend Ivor and Nicu, were shown to the audience, followed by a Q&A session.
In Yoke Farm, Henry, who runs a corner shop. uncovers a forced labour syndicate when a young immigrant worker from a nearby farm passes him a note with the word ‘HELP’ written on it. Although the story is transposed to an English setting, it is based on the NI Law Centre’s experience of working with victims of exploitation and trafficking.
The Home Office estimates that there are still 10,000 to 13,000 victims of slavery in the UK today. In Northern Ireland, 45 potential victims of trafficking were identified in 2014. This is a 10 per cent increase since 2013. Two thirds of all cases in Northern Ireland involved labour exploitation.
In a recent NI Law Centre briefing, it was argued that “trafficking is a process by which a person becomes exploited. However, forced labour can occur without any trafficking having taken place.”
At present in Britain, the issue of migrants has been to the fore of the General Election with the main parties adopting a mix of rhetoric which says they are opposed to “an influx of migrants” or they will have “tighter controls on the number of migrants entering the UK”.
The Labour Party even brought out a mug, above, which trumpeted its commitment to a tough immigration system.
Unfortunately, there is not the same tough approach adopted towards migrants, who come to work in the UK, when it comes to the protection of their rights. Many of them endure tough economic conditions and exploitation by unscrupulous employers.
In a landscape of austerity and weaker protection rights for all employees, the migrant labourer can quickly find themselves at the bottom of the policy heap.
Indeed, the Northern Ireland CBI, in a recent statement, argued that “a leaner regime of employment law could be a global sales tool for employers here”.
In order to crackdown successfully on forced labour practices, surely we need to campaign for better protection rights for all workers, regardless of who they are or where they come from.
Worryingly, a number of people have said that they feared it will take a case like the tragedy of the deaths of 21 Morecambe Bay cockle-pickers in England in 2004, to raise the profile of forced labour among the wider public in Northern Ireland.
Whilst all of us should respond to a plea for HELP the situation warrants that the State must also play its part in protecting all workers from exploitative practices.