PEOPLE trafficking can seem a distant problem, particularly as we in Ireland struggle with life in the midst of a pandemic.
Yet far from being something that happens to people in distant lands, the exploitation of people through modern day slavery and bonded labour arises here in Ireland. It is an integral part of our economy: in the context of the products or services we want to buy at a bargain price and in the (criminal) domestic production of cannabis.
We largely ignore trafficking, thinking it must be someone else’s responsibility, something happening elsewhere.
It certainly can feel as if our government agrees with us. In 2020 the US Department of State downgraded Ireland to the Tier 2 Watch List as part of its “Trafficking in Persons” (TiPs) Report.
This report ranks states from Tier 1 (fully compliant with minimum standards) to Tier 3 (not fully compliant/not making significant efforts). Ireland’s relegation means we do not “fully meet the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking”.
The report stated that “the government did not demonstrate overall increasing efforts compared to ” and was the second time in three years we had been downgraded. Criticisms included the fact that our government continued to have “systematic deficiencies in victim identification, referral, and assistance” as well as a “lack [of] specialized accommodation and adequate services for victims…”.
Our fishing sector was singled out as a particularly problematic sector whose working scheme increased its vulnerability to trafficking. Yet this is just one of a number of areas where modern day slavery operates in Ireland. Agriculture, car washing, restaurants and nail bars are all recognised as being locations for victims alongside criminal activities such as grow houses. Indeed, the availability of cheap car valeting services and manicures is indicative of a problem that is well recognised in reports from state bodies such as the Workplace Relationship Commission.
Yet headlines report this largely as “employment practice failures”, sanitising the lived reality of those working long hours for pocket money with no possibility of escape.
The warning that “where the price of a service looks to be too good to be true, we should be asking why” is important. In these sectors while it is not the customer that suffers, we are saving money off the back of the person whose labour (and life) is being exploited.
In terms of enforcement, while we now have a specialised Garda Unit – the Human Trafficking Investigation and Coordination Unit – it was only in the last week that we finally had a successful prosecution under the Human Trafficking Act 2008, as amended in 2013. The Department of Justice had responded to the 2020 TiPs Report by announcing that 80 criminal investigations were “ongoing” and that “convictions in relation to associated charges” had been secured. While the recent convictions are very welcome, the fact remains that despite the official identification of 471 trafficking victims since 2013 only two people have been held criminally responsible for trafficking. As the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings stressed in 2017, the inability to successfully and systematically convict traffickers can deter victims from testifying and add to a culture of impunity.
What is also apparent is that the category someone might fall into has a huge impact on their treatment as either victim or offender. A victim of trafficking is (or should be) provided supports, services, perhaps permissions to stay in a country they have been trafficked into. An illegal migrant, a growhouse worker, a sex worker, may instead be criminalised, imprisoned, deported. Their status as victim or offender is often only allotted because of government policy, the type of work they are trafficked into, and their own citizenship status.
Even where someone is classified as a victim, the state has systematically failed to provide specialised accommodation with 180 alleged victims of trafficking placed in direct provision centres over the past five years.
The EU’s anti-trafficking directive requires that the State provide “appropriate and safe accommodation” including “necessary medical treatment including psychological assistance”. Direct provision centres fail miserably to meet this requirement. While a dedicated accommodation centre is scheduled to open later this year it will be on a “trial basis” with space for only eight to 10 victims.
How, then, do we meaningfully and sensitively communicate the lived reality of experiences such as trafficking? Art is one way; it allows us to connect with things in a fundamental and empathetic way which is particularly powerful in terms of human rights issues.
When crisis issues can feel too large, too far away, too different for us to understand on a personal level, artistic representation can immerse us in an experience that triggers a fundamental emotive response, channelling our sense of justice.
The Day-Crossing Farm social arts project is a powerful example of advocacy and art coinciding. I have been lucky to be, in a small way, part of the development of acclaimed visual artist Marie Brett’s ambitious and immersive art installation, pictured left.
The work explores how the human rights issue of human trafficking and modern-day-slavery relates to drug farming in Ireland currently. The art piece has been developed over two years’ consultation with justice and advocacy organisations, scholars, gardeners and persons with lived experience of trafficking and forced labour. Commissioned by Cork Midsummer Festival, it is produced in collaboration with filmmaker Linda Curtin; composer/sound designer Peter Power; and lighting designer Sarah Jane Shiels.
The installation is kept in a secret Cork city location, featuring multi-media sculptures, plant life, soundscapes, projections, live music and other performance.
Engaging our multiple senses, the installation evokes the complex, multiple elements at play in growhouses. People lured into a trapped world of criminal activity by a promise of escape from debt and poverty. People isolated from others, deprived of their agency, working for both the plants and the gangs that have no regard for them. They are disposable.
In this space, the victim lives in a world both alien to them and us, yet on our own doorstep. Art and advocacy of this nature is designed to be unsettling and thought-provoking, to call on us to find out more, to accept less at face value.
The Day-Crossing Farm was commissioned by Cork Midsummer Festival as a live event and film stream and runs from June 14-27. See corkmidsummer.com