Northern Ireland Soroptimists hold Cross Border Conference on Human Trafficking

Cross border forced labour conference 21 January 2015

Dromantine Conference Centre, Newry



This event was the second cross border conference on human trafficking, with a specific emphasis on responding to forced labour. The conference was opened by Minister of Justice, David Ford, and Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Aodhán Ó’Ríordán. A number of experts gave presentations throughout the day, before sitting on a panel for a Q&A session to close the conference.



  • Neil Jarman from the Institute for Conflict Research spoke about the emergence of the problem of forced labour in Northern Ireland, the scale of the problem and recent developments. He then referred to:
    • recognition of the problem – initially discovered in Northern Ireland amongst Lithuanians in the mushroom picking industry in 2002;
    • response to the problem – legislative and policy response, awareness raising, and recognition of the problem by some employers; and
    • the challenges faced when tackling it – lack of understanding of the scale, lack of prosecutions, and lack of good engagement with business.


  • Grainne O’Toole from Migrant Rights Centre Ireland then set the scene in the Republic of Ireland. She explained the background and role of MRCI and outlined the work they have done with victims of forced labour. She also highlighted the key challenges faced in successfully identifying victims. These included:
    • The level of threat and control used by perpetrators;
    • The techniques of perpetrators becoming increasingly sophisticated; and
    • Flaws within the current model of identification.

Ms O’ Toole was accompanied by Mariaam Bhatti, who gave a personal account of her experience of forced labour in Ireland.


  • Paul Broadbent, Chief Executive of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority (GLA) then outlined the work of GLA, including its involvement in a Police Scotland case, which had included two victims of labour exploitation and human trafficking in Northern Ireland. He explained how a number of relevant agencies had worked together, across borders, to investigate this case, and to provide support and assistance to the victims.


  • John Kelly of the National Employment Rights Authority (NERA) outlined the role of and structures within NERA. He outlined the main breaches of employment law which they encountered, NERA’s role in identification and disruption and forthcoming legislative changes in the south which would assist NERA in combating exploitation.


  • Kevin Hyland, UK Independent Anti Slavery Commissioner then outlined his vision of the role and responsibilities of his newly established office. He highlighted the importance of international work with countries of origin, in trying to stop trafficking at the source. He recognised the unique position that Northern Ireland is in with the shared land border, and how this can be, and has been, exploited by traffickers. He also referred to the disparity between the assessed number of victims and the reported figures for this type of crime, and his desire to address this discrepancy. His presentation was the culmination of a three day visit to Northern Ireland, during which he met with a number of stakeholders and NGOs.


Feedback from Workshops

There were six workshops focussing on three themes: Challenges for law enforcement; Prevention and identification; and awareness and training.  The key findings from the discussions are set out below.


Challenges for law enforcement

These workshops were asked to consider the main challenges and obstacles faced when investigating forced labour, including specific cross border issues; and action that could be taken to make the investigative process easier or more effective.



Issues and challenges

There were a range of issues that made both the investigative and prosecution processes difficult.

–          Primarily, victims did not want to cooperate with the authorities through fear and getting the trust and support of the victim is an issue.

–          Some victims want to return home immediately after they are recovered and as a result contact is lost.

–          Others do not recognise themselves as victims of exploitation and considered their exploited situation better than life in their home country.

–          Even if victims are cooperative, the process is a lengthy one and support could dwindle over the course of time.


There are practical challenges for the police and prosecution services.

–          It is difficult to ascertain the tipping point between labour exploitation and forced labour.

–          The identification of victims at crime scenes is also an issue – are they victims or suspects?  In RoI, is An Garda Síochána’s role in identifying victims in the National Referral Mechanism appropriate or should the criminal investigation and identification of victims be separated?

–          Getting evidence that is admissible and that meets the “beyond reasonable doubt” threshold for a criminal conviction is a key part of the process.


Specific cross border issues include:

–          the different legislative frameworks and information sharing protocols;

–          the difficulty in monitoring individuals as they cross the border; and

–          the challenges presented by victims living on one side of the border but working on the other.



A number of actions were suggested:

–          Keep victims   up-to-date with criminal proceedings by maintaining contact throughout the course of the process;

–          Ensure that victims  are  provided with appropriate support (financial or otherwise) as proceedings progress;

–          Look to enhancing information sharing between statutory agencies (north and south) and with non statutory organisations working with victims or potential victims;

–          Use information provided by victims to trigger wider investigations;

–          Maintain joint training between AGS and PSNI;

–          Seek to run Joint Investigation Teams (JITs) wherever possible and make use of Eurojust (EU Judicial Cooperation office);

–          Assess which country is best to prosecute in;

–          Use innovative means to increase chances of prosecution.  For example, in Germany diaries of victims’ experiences had been used in court to support prosecutions (this was a trade union initiative).  Placing on obligation on employers to prove payments to workers;

–          Work towards a pan European understanding by law enforcement of human trafficking for forced labour.

–          Sanctions against companies found to engage in forced labour practices such as ineligibility for government contracts.

–          Collecting objective evidence e.g. obliging employers to demonstrate payments.


Prevention and identification

These workshops considered the key stakeholders, both statutory and non statutory, that might come into contact with victims of forced labour.  Engaging these stakeholders; protecting and upholding victims’ rights; and specific cross border challenges to prevention and identification were also discussed.


Attendees identified a wide range of stakeholders in government and civil society, including individuals working in:

–          the health and education sector, such as teachers and doctors;

–          jobs and benefits offices;

–          housing authorities;

–          local government, such as health and safety officers and those with licensing roles;

–          tax authorities;

–          organisations with an employment inspectorate function, including NERA and the Employment Agency Inspectorate;

–          government subcontractors;

–          any public sector workers with an inspection function;

–          migrant support groups;

–          community and youth workers;

–          landlords;

–          taxi companies;

–          employers in key sectors (eg. agricultural, meat processing etc)


Whilst there are a significant number of stakeholders, not all of them want to be engaged on forced labour; some delegates suggested that a number of key influencers might at times display a tolerance of it.  It is important to separate the victim from the crime and challenge the assumption that victims of forced labour are complicit in criminality or are always foreign nationals.


Empowering potential victims

There is also the issue of people who do not recognise themselves as having been exploited, sometimes because of different cultural norms in their home countries.

–          Migrants should be educated about their employment rights in Ireland and be able to assert them – although having the confidence to do so could take some time.

–          Helping victims to protect and uphold their rights needs a creative approach.  Many cannot read or write so visual awareness raising, through TV and posters, would be useful.

–          Word of mouth, particularly through community groups, could play an important role.

–          Early intervention models could prevent people from getting caught up in exploitative situations in the first place.



As well as general awareness raising, there needs to be specific focus on the business community.

–          Emphasising the potential reputational damage and financial loss, whilst revealing the human cost of exploitation, could help persuade businesses to cooperate.

–          This should be coupled with “upstream” education in countries of origin.


Awareness and training

These workshops considered the level of awareness of forced labour; the approaches to be taken in raising awareness of the crime; and training for both statutory bodies and NGOs.


The level of awareness of forced labour across Ireland was considered quite low, although things are beginning to change.

–          Data is a key factor:  statistics and information should be made widely available to inform debate and understanding of this form of exploitation.


Identifying “at risk” factors

In understanding and raising awareness of forced labour, people needed to take a broader view: whilst immigration status or language skills are factors contributing to vulnerability, forced labour was not primarily an issue of race or limited to migrant workers.

–          For example, education in schools could look at how migrants are viewed in the community;

–          There was a need to understand forced labour in a human context, rather than a migrant context.

–          Other key vulnerabilities not linked to migrant status, such as alcoholism, poverty or mental health problems, could leave people more at risk of exploitation.

–          Unregulated, part-time, seasonal and mobile work


Engaging consumers and businesses

The general public should be made aware that its behaviour could encourage forced labour.

–          Forced labour is driven by the demand for cheap goods and as such there is a real need for responsible consumerism.

–          Business has a moral duty to operate ethically and free workshops for those in relevant industries could draw attention to forms of exploitation within supply chains; the benefits of knowing suppliers; and provide advice on how to respond.

–          Furthermore, awareness raising should be targeted around known trafficking routes and at entry points such as ports and airports.

–          Really ‘hard to reach’ communities could be approached, for example, by church groups and made aware of their rights as early as possible.

–          Campaign to encourage workers to maintain a diary.



–          It was suggested that industry standards for anti trafficking actors should be adopted.  These should be flexible enough to capture new trends and respond to emerging forms of exploitation.

–          Language used in training should be easy to understand and technical terms used only within certain fields or occupations should be avoided. 



The conference was well attended by individuals from both statutory and non governmental backgrounds, with a number of new stakeholders engaging on this topic for the first time.


The discussions will help to inform the work of the Department of Justice and the Department of Justice and Equality in tackling forced labour and in particular, raising awareness of this crime.


Initial feedback has been very positive, however attendees will be invited to provide more detailed feedback to determine which aspects of the day were most useful, and if anything further should have been covered.

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