During the 1990s, Ireland emerged from the oppressive theocracy of the Catholic Church. The progress began a decade earlier but with the Celtic Tiger and throwing off of shivering prayers, there was hope for our underdeveloped nation. Joining the EU brought money for development and an infrastructure began to emerge. We were becoming a modern social democratic state, of a sort. Despite the diminishing power of the Church, there were bitter fights to legalise homosexuality (1993), divorce (1995) and provide ‘Sheaths of Satan’ (condoms) to anyone without prescription (1992 and 1993). Abortion remains illegal in most cases. Ireland has never faced up to the essential duality of personal choice and the supremacy of Catholic dogma.
At the same time, information was emerging about the wide range of human rights violations committed by the Church on Irish citizens. Priests, monks and nuns tortured, enslaved and raped children and women with impunity. The police returned runaways. Doctors covered up. Teachers stood by. A vast conspiracy of silence protected paedophiles and torturers.
Last year, I wrote about the Ryan Report which investigated some of these crimes in industrial schools. Precious few of the Ryan recommendations have been implemented. However, another group of citizens have been ignored, belittled and whitewashed out of the past – the victims and survivors of the Magdalen Laundries. I have written about their experiences here.
The truth about the Magdalene Laundries came to light after the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity sold land to a property developer in Dublin in 1993. They applied for an exhumation licence for the remains of 133 women. During the exhumation the remains of a further 22 women were discovered. Death certificates were provided for only 75 of the 133 women on the original application. The Department of the Environment provided the licence for the additional remains, without even a rudimentary enquiry. All but one of the women’s bodies were then cremated and reburied in Glasnevin Cemetery in a mass grave.
Various advocacy groups formed to campaign for an acknowledgement, apology and compensation for wages never received. The Magdalene Name Project was set up to try and trace women who were incarcerated by the state and the four religious congregations – the Sisters of Our Lady of Charity, the Religious Sisters Charity, the Sisters of Mercy and the Good Shepherd Sisters – who stripped the women of their identity and their names.
The Irish State has refused to acknowledge its responsibility for the survivors of the Magdalen Laundries. Successive governments have solidly claimed that the laundries were privately run and that the State had no part in the forced detention and enslavement of women and girls. The attitude of the State can be summed up in this egregious statement by Minister for Education Batt O Keeffe in 2009
The Magdalen laundries were privately-owned and operated establishments which did not come within the responsibility of the State. The State did not refer individuals to the Magdalen laundries nor was it complicit in referring individuals to them
Aside from the horrific use of the word ‘employees’ for women who were enslaved, the Minister is factually incorrect. The Irish courts routinely referred women to various Magdalene laundries for a variety of crimes and these women were escorted to the laundries by Irish probation officers. Additionally, even if the women were ‘employed’ by a private company, the state still has a duty to uphold Irish law and maintain ethical working conditions. Starvation, forced labour, routine beatings and sexual abuse by employers is illegal now and was illegal then.
An employee voluntarily gives his/her labour; is properly rewarded; and has a right to represesentation /free association with a union.
None of these choices were available to the women interned in Magdalene Laundries.
In June 2010, Justice For Magdalenes group contacted the Irish Human Rights Commission and requested that they conduct an enquiry pursuant to section 9(1)(b) of the Human Rights Commission Act 2000, into the treatment of women and girls who were imprisoned in the laundries. The Commission published its findings five months later. It found that
– Women and girls entered through the Courts system as well as informal committals.
– There was clear state involvement.
– They suffered harsh treatment – forced to work long hours, names changed, isolated from society, denied educational opportunities.
– No clear information on whether they could leave
– The State is responsible for not guarding against arbitrary detention
– The State breached its obligations on forced or compulsory labour under the 1930 Forced Labour Convention from March 1931 and the ECHR from 1953 as it engaged in commercial trade with the convents for goods produced by forced labour.
– The State breached its obligations to ensure that no one is held in servitude
– The State breached its obligations by permitting medical experiments to be carried out on the children of the Magdalene inmates without their knowledge or consent.
The report also called on the government to immediately establish a Statutory Inquiry and to provide redress to the survivors. It was met with “wall of official indifference” according to the Human Rights Commission president Dr Maurice Manning.
Given the official indifference to the IHRC report, the Justice for Magdalenes group brought their case to the UN Committee Against Torture. Maeve O’Rourke, a Harvard Law School human rights fellow, presented the Magdalenes’ case on 20 May 2011. She told the committee that the Irish government’s failure to deal with the abuse amounted to continuing degrading treatment in violation of the Convention Against Torture. She also said the state had failed to promptly investigate “a more than 70-year system of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of women and girls in Ireland’s Magdalene laundries.”
On 7 June 2001, the UN published its recommendations:
The Committee is gravely concerned at the failure by the State party to protect girls and women who were involuntarily confined between 1922 and 1996 in the Magdalene Laundries, by failing to regulate their operations and inspect them, where it is alleged that physical, emotional abuses and other ill-treatment were committed amounting to breaches of the Convention. The Committee is also expresses grave concern at the failure by the State party to institute prompt, independent and thorough investigation into the allegations of ill-treatment perpetrated on girls and women in the Magdalene Laundries. (articles 2, 12, 13, 14 and 16)
The Committee recommends that the State party should institute prompt, independent, and thorough investigations into all allegations of torture, and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment that were allegedly committed in the Magdalene Laundries, and, in appropriate cases, prosecute and punish the perpetrators with penalties commensurate with the gravity of the offences committed, and ensure that all victims obtain redress and have an enforceable right to compensation including the means for as full rehabilitation as possible.
The hope is that international condemnation might shame the Irish government into action. Indeed, in the two weeks since the UN published its recommendations, the government has decided
to establish an Inter-departmental Committee, chaired by an independent person, to fully establish the true facts and circumstances relating to the Magdalene Laundries as a first step… to clarify any State interaction with the Magdalene Laundries and to produce a narrative detailing such interaction.
This decision ignores the report of the Irish Human Rights Commission and the findings of the UN. The State is culpable. Its first step should be to apologise to the survivors and acknowledge not only the wrong it has done but also what it failed to do. However, it is important to establish as fact the responsibility of the state and the criminal acts of the religious congregations.
The issue of forced labour is not one that is confined to the past. In Ireland, migrant workers bear the brunt of forced labour. Passports and visas are held by employers. Excessive working hours for little pay and no overtime are common. Trafficking for forced labour has been identified in a number of sectors including, agriculture, construction, domestic and restaurant work.
In 2005, Deputy Joe Higgins of the Socialist Party revealed that Gama Ireland (a foreign-based multinational construction company) was exploiting its employees, “… this is a modern version of bonded labour.” The company, which tendered for and received public contracts worth over €200 million, confiscated the passports and work permits of its non national staff and paid them about €2-€3 per hour in breach of the minimum wage law. Staff regularly worked over 80 hours per week without payment for overtime. Around 200 workers fled Ireland, some as a result of intimidation of their families at home, and as a result were unable to give evidence in the court action to secure their wages.
The trade union, of which the workers were members, stood by and did nothing. The government did nothing. In fact, the then Minister for Overseas Aid Conor Lenihan used their plight in an attempt to mock Joe Higgins. He shouted “stick to the kebabs” while Higgins was speaking on another matter. The kebabs in this case, being the Turkish workers, who were forced to work for pittance and kept in the company’s own accommodation. Higgins was the only TD (MP) to highlight the plight of the GAMA workers. Indeed, he has a record for championing unfashionable cases. Lenihan was not reprimanded for his racist remarks. It was only in February of this year that 491 workers were granted access to petition the High Court. Until then Gama had blocked the reports from becoming public. The workers had to wait six years to get any sort of justice.
Another case concerned a Polish company, Noris Poland, operating in Ireland. The company informed 12 workers that they would be sent back to Poland if they let the union know that they are being paid a third of the minimum rate. The company withheld an average of €200 per month from their wages as a bond to deter them seeking employment elsewhere.
According to the 2008 US State Dept “Trafficking in Persons Report”
Ireland is a destination and, to a lesser extent, transit country for women, men, and children trafficked for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation and forced labor. Women from Eastern Europe, Nigeria, other parts of Africa and, to a lesser extent, South America and Asia reportedly have been trafficked to Ireland for forced prostitution. Labor trafficking victims reportedly consist of men and women from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Egypt, and the Philippines, although there may also be some victims from South America, Eastern Europe, and other parts of Asia and Africa.
Ireland falls into the second tier with regard to trafficking for forced labour and forced prostitution and the de facto situation is that victims are criminalised.
In 2008, Ireland finally enacted the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act, which created separate offences including, trafficking in children for the purpose of their labour or sexual exploitation or the removal of their organs and trafficking in adults for their sexual or labour exploitation or the removal of their organs.
It is those on the margins of society who suffer. In the past, society criminalised certain women and girls by enslaving them in Magdalene laundries and in the present, migrant workers and trafficked persons suffer forced labour and forced prostitution in our society. Middle class families abuse domestic workers with no recourse. Women worked without pay their whole lives. Passport and visas are confiscated. Women were denied their names. The State refuses to acknowledge its part in the atrocities committed on the women. The State turns its back on human rights abuses in the labour force.
The nature and nationalities of the victims has changed. The State’s reaction has not.