Northern Ireland’s apple growers have been warned of the pitfalls of inadvertantly being drawn into criminality by employing ‘modern day slaves’ during harvest.
Last month the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority (GLAA) issued a warning to all local apple growers after groups of Romanian nationals arrived in the province seeking work in the Lurgan and Portadown area.
The growers were reminded of their legal and moral responsibilities to ensure that they use GLAA licensed gangmasters only so that they don’t unwittingly aid in the exploitation of foreign nationals.
A spokesperson for Department of Justice warned that modern slavery is a reality in Northern Ireland and have urged the farming community help bring the practise into the spotlight.
He added: “The criminals involved in this abhorrent activity seek to reduce men and women to commodities and deny them of their most basic human rights. Being able to recognise and report the signs of modern slavery is critical in our fight to bring this dark and cruel crime into the light.
“Working with the PSNI and the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority, we work to free victims, support the vulnerable and bring criminals before the courts.
“The farming community and those involved in the agricultural sector can help enormously. As responsible employers we would ask that you and your farmworkers be vigilant, particularly around harvest-time, and watch out for any signs that would indicate that casual workers are being forced or exploited,” the spokesperson added.
Ninety per-cent of the work of the GLAA is centred in the Portadown, Lurgan, Armagh and Newry area.
Figures for the first six months of this year show that there have been 17 cases of ‘modern day slavery’ in Northern Ireland - nine for sexual exploitation, six for forced labour, one for domestic servitude and one unknown.
In the last five years the PSNI have recovered 189 individuals from situations of trafficking in Northern Ireland. PSNI investigations have led to four convictions in recent years.
The main Nationalities of victims of trafficking and exploitation in Northern Ireland have been Romanian, Chinese, Bulgarian, UK Nationals and Lithuanian.
Anyone who provides casual labour is called a ‘gangmaster’ and has to be properly licensed by the Gangmasters & Labour Abuse Authority.
The GLAA has warned that forced labour is happening in Northern Ireland and that the apple industry is particularly at risk at the current time as farmers may unwittingly employ workers who are being exploited as harvest kicks in.
Farmers are being reminded that while they may be desperate for workers, they are still required to meet their moral and legal obligations when taking on casual workers.
Many of the trafficked workers who are being exploited by unlicensed gangmasters are working in the apple, mushroom and food processing industries.
They arrive in the country through Dublin, and have little or no English. Their initial transport to Northern Ireland incurs a debt to the gangmaster, which builds when they are not allowed to work for a week, mounting up further debt for rent and food, and when they do start to work, they are charged for transportation to and from their place of work.
They are not paid minimum wage, have no benefits and are often living in horrific conditions in cramped houses with no access to medical treatment.
They are effectively ‘brainwashed’ to believe that even though they have entered the country legally, they will be in trouble if they talk to the police or authorities.
Operations to tackle suspected cases of exploitation and forced labour are intelligence led and involve a multi agency team including the PSNI, GLAA, health and safety and HMRC.
Exploited workers are often reluctant to talk. No matter how bad their current living arrangements, it is often better than what they have come from in their home country. The various agencies rely on concerned members of the public to make that initial phone call to alert them to a suspected case.
Sometimes the workers are not actually locked up, but they are afraid to leave due to threats of harm against their families at home. Their passports are taken from them, which is another controlling mechanism.
Human trafficking does not necessarily mean moving someone from one country to another - it can be as simple as moving someone from A to B - from one side of the street to another.
The GLAA has issued advice leaflets on how to spot the indicators of worker exploitation including restrictions to their movement.
This could include not being in possession of passports or documents, not being able to communicate freely with others, have no access to medical care, or be given only leftovers to eat.
They may also show signs of acting under instruction by someone else, be distrustful of the authorities, be afraid of revealing their immigration status and show fear or anxiety.
If you have any suspicions of human trafficking, forced labour or worker exploitation you should report it immediately.
You can contact the GLAA on 0800 432 0804 or 0115 959 7032 (outside office hours) email firstname.lastname@example.org; the police 101 or in the case of an emergency 999; Crimestoppers 0800 555 111; UK Slavery Helpline 0800 012 1700; Modern Slavery Human Trafficking Centre 0844 778 2406.