Fast fashion chain Boohoo has recently been in the news after reports emerged condemning the company of engaging in human trafficking. The Sunday Times reported that Boohoo was engaging in labour trafficking by sourcing its garments from a factory in Leicester where employees were paid as little as £3.50 an hour despite the minimum wage being £8.72 for over 25’s. While initial independent investigations have found no evidence of human trafficking offences by the company, this shouldn’t be the end of the narrative on human trafficking in the UK and Ireland, and it shouldn’t take alleged offences by multinational companies to make us start to care about trafficking victims.
Human trafficking offences are not solely overseas issues taking place in the UK or the United States, they are happening right here on this island and it's time we started to care and speak out about Ireland’s invisible victims.
Each year the United States State Department compiles its Trafficking in Persons Report which ranks each country on a tiered basis on their efforts to combat human trafficking. In 2019 Ireland was downgraded from Tier 2 to a Tier 2 Watchlist, meaning that their anti-trafficking efforts are decreasing rather than increasing. If this continues to be the case Ireland could see itself downgraded further to Tier 3 and face financial penalties as well as US opposition to assistance from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.
Ireland’s Tier 2 Watchlist status means that the country does not meet the minimum standards set out in the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act for the elimination of trafficking and is currently one of the three worst performing countries in Europe in regard to anti-trafficking efforts. In 2019 the Irish government reported 39 ongoing trafficking investigations, 36 of which were for sex trafficking and three for labour trafficking. While it may be easy to be lulled into a false sense of security and think that all is well if so many cases are being investigated, we can’t let ourselves believe that a prosecution of traffickers solves the problem or that there aren’t hundreds more invisible victims throughout the country. While Ireland may be prosecuting offenders, it is not protecting victims and having an offender serving jail time does nothing to lessen the psychological, emotional and, oftentimes, physical impact of their trauma. This is where the Irish government are failing dismally, and this is where serious work needs to be done to provide trafficking victims with the support they need to overcome their ordeal.
The Irish government has displayed a decreased effort to support and protect victims of human trafficking, which is a trend that is likely to continue as the country deals with Covid and the threat of yet another recession. But we cannot let this be the case and we cannot become complacent and turn a blind eye to the buying and selling of human beings that is taking place on our own island. If Ireland has shown itself to be a master of one thing it is grassroots activism, something that saw both same sex marriage and abortion legalised, but the momentum of these movements now needs to be harnessed into protecting some of the most vulnerable people in society, people who go unseen, unheard and, overtime, become completely invisible. I firmly believe that through grassroots activists and NGOs we can change the reality for trafficking victims in Ireland. The 'new' government now sitting in the Daíl must be pressured into making change and that pressure is only likely to come from NGOs and grassroots groups.
While a signatory of the UN Slavery Convention, Ireland’s current efforts to combat slavery are dismal and protection for victims is essentially non-existent. Although the government announced its plan to implement a revised referral mechanism for trafficking victims in 2017, to date this has still not materialised, and, what is more, victims cannot access the current referral mechanism for assistance without cooperating with law enforcement, something that research has shown has detrimentally impacted human trafficking investigations by pushing victims to talk before they are emotionally ready. Ireland desperately needs to improve its efforts to protect victims, starting with removing the requirement to cooperate with law enforcement in order to access the referral mechanism and also extend the recovery and reflection period for victims in order to grant them time to recover emotionally and physically and to allow them to decide how they wish to start getting their lives back together. Victims need to be treated as victims and afforded the same level of care we would provide victims of other crimes.
There is so much more that the Irish government can and need to do to protect trafficking victims, but I believe the above is a good starting point. While the news is dominated by Covid, Brexit, and threats of recession, take a moment to think about the victims whose stories and circumstances won’t be heard unless we fight for them. We can’t go on turning a blind eye to something that is happening so close to home and impacting the lives of so many people. The government needs to increase its efforts to identify and protect victims, and they need to be pressured into making these changes. Irish activists have shown they have the drive and determination to force the government into making the country a safer place to live in for many marginalised groups. Now it’s time to turn the focus to the invisible victims and do better to change Ireland’s human trafficking narrative.
Sarah Lively is a final year student studying International Politics and Conflict Studies at Queen's University Belfast. She is interested in feminism, human security and critical security studies.