Human trafficking is an evil we like to think happens somewhere else; in impoverished countries, or if nearer to home only as part of activity that is generally illegal – the sex trade perhaps, but not the mainstream economy. It is a jolt to be confronted with evidence suggesting that human trafficking for labour exploitation – a form of modern slavery – may be happening under our noses and in relation to goods that we ourselves consume.
The Guardian has uncovered suspected cases of undocumented African and Asian migrant workers being trafficked into the Irish prawn and white fish fleet as part of a wider investigation into the exploitation of undocumented migrants in fishing. We know that similar allegations are being investigated by police as part of a formal inquiry into trafficking in the Scottish fishing fleet.
The reaction in Ireland has been one of shock. But it has fallen into two camps: those who say the problem has been an open secret for years, including among leading Irish media groups who have bravely covered the issue in the past, and those, some of them connected to the industry, who say the reports are exaggerated.
What many of those we spoke to in Ireland during the year-long investigation found hard to accept was that some of the exploitation reported to us might be a problem of slavery, although human rights groups and the seafarers’ union are convinced that is what it is. African and Asian workers wanted to come, they said. Employers were doing them a favour. They were happy to live on trawlers – even though the pay was often a fraction of what locals might earn for the same work – because it was nevertheless more than they could ever earn at home. They might be working illegally and be undocumented, but they were friends, like family. That can’t be slavery, surely?
Most of the migrant workers we interviewed, by contrast, conveyed a sense of constant fear, feeling trapped by their lack of immigration status. They also conveyed a sense of deep degradation. We did not attempt to put figures on the scale of trafficking – measuring something that is hidden and illegal is, by definition, impossible. Any figures that do emerge should, like all statistics on irregular immigration, be treated with caution. Undocumented migrant workers who are being exploited tend not to appear on the mandatory crew logs. Some talked clearly, however, of being treated as though they were less than human, or as second-class citizens.
Legal definitions of slavery have changed. New legislation in the UK and amended legislation in Ireland aims to recognise that slavery today is not limited to chattel slavery and violent control. The new laws recognise that victims may have consented to their initial journeys, and that control may be exercised in other ways than the physical. A good analogy is the change in legal definitions of rape in recent decades. We no longer think of rape as confined to cases involving violent attack by a stranger. We accept that there can also be rape where a victim has agreed to meet and have some sort of relationship with the other person but not consented to sex.
Modern slavery can encompass more subtle forms of coercion and control: where a victim’s vulnerability or lack of choice has been abused; where there is a hold over family back home through debt; or where the threat of deportation deprives them of any real freedom and choice once they have been brought in. They may be paid for some of their work but be forced to do extra unpaid labour. Determining when an individual is a victim of slavery as it is newly defined depends on the detail of their experience. To distinguish it from the historic wrongs of the slave trade, we add the tag “modern” to slavery, although of course we do not feel the need to call rape, as newly defined, “modern rape”, nor do we attempt to create a hierarchy of psychological pain within the experience.
A huge cultural shift is still needed to recognise the phenomenon of modern slavery for what it is. The words we use matter because those who do not recognise it are, in effect, saying: we pay them enough for who they are. They may have to live on boats and hide, their status may be “illegal”, but their conditions are good enough for who they are. And who are they? They are poor, sometimes black or brown, and from elsewhere. Unchecked, such discrimination can lead to deep divisions based on race, as the Irish Equality and Human Rights Commission has pointed out.
There are other reasons this story has made people feel queasy. It speaks of our hypocrisy about immigration. Generally we are against it, except where it provides a convenient pool of cheap labour, and then we allow ourselves to depend on it. We could grant migrant workers equal rights whatever their immigration status, as argued for by the organisations that have supported them bravely in Ireland for more than 15 years.
But then they wouldn’t be cheap any more, and their purpose would be removed.
“Modern slavery is harder to recognise when it’s right under our noses”