Opinion: a growing number of instances of serious labour exploitation have been detected in Ireland in recent years

Mohammed Younis arrived in Ireland from Pakistan in 2002 after being recruited by a second cousin to work as a chef in his Dublin restaurant. For the next seven years, he worked seven days a week with no holidays (except for one month, which was unpaid). 

He was paid what amounted to pocket money in cash and relied on his employer to regularise his immigration and tax situation, which was not done. 

In 2010, he was awarded €92,000 in compensation – an award that, though it was eventually upheld by the Supreme Court, has still not been paid by the employer.

There has not been a successful prosecution for trafficking offences in Ireland since 2013

Mr Younis’ case is one of a growing number of instances of serious labour exploitation (sometimes termed "modern slavery") detected in Ireland in recent years. 

Other high-profile examples include the discovery in 2016 of 23 exploited workers who had been based in a waste recycling plant in Co Meath, and the widely reported problem of severe labour abuses in the Irish fishing industry. 

Legally, these situations may constitute "human trafficking" under Irish law, which, since 2013, criminalises labour exploitation that reaches the level of slavery; servitude; forced labour; or forcing someone to provide services to another person. 

However, although the Irish authorities identified 219 suspected trafficking victims in the three-year period between 2014 and 2016, there has not been a successful prosecution for trafficking offences in Ireland since 2013. 

Car washes may be a "high risk" sector for modern slavery.

High risk sectors: fishing, car washes, nail bars

International experience shows that certain sectors of the labour market are at a particularly "high risk" when it comes to modern slavery, including some which involve direct interaction with the consumer public.

In Ireland, the Workplace Relations Commission has identified the fishing industry, the equine sector, car washes, and nail bars as priority areas for its labour inspectors. 

In general, if the price of a particular service looks too good to be true, the consumer would be advised to think about why that might be and whether labour exploitation might be involved. 

The fishing industry has been particularly problematic over the last number of years, due to a lack of safe and legal routes for migration, as well as the difficulties in regulating an isolated, informal and challenging work environment. 

A work permit scheme adopted in 2016 to try to address the lack of regulation and enforcement of labour standards in the industry has not been effective to prevent abuses of migrant workers. 

If the price looks too good to be true, the consumer would be advised to think about why

In fact, this year, eight migrant fishermen who had actually been recruited under this scheme have been formally identified by Gardai as suspected victims of trafficking. 

The International Transport Workers’ Federation, a global labour organisation, has threatened to take the Irish government to court over what it argues is state-facilitated human trafficking. 

Why are migrant workers particularly vulnerable to labour exploitation? 

All of the examples mentioned above involved non-EU or EU citizen workers, reflecting the particular vulnerability of migrants to mistreatment in the workplace. The causes of vulnerability to severe labour exploitation are complex and often relate to an imbalanced power relationship between the employer and the employee. 

This is a particular issue for non-EU workers, who may be dependent on their employer, not just for work, but also for their right to be in the country. 

Across Europe, work permits that tie the employee to the employer have been seen to create a relationship of dependency, which makes it very difficult for employees to leave abusive situations. 

Labour exploitation is often a hidden problem, which some argue is an inevitable by-product of capitalism

In Ireland, general work permits are granted for employment with a specific employer, who the worker is usually expected to stay with for at least 12 months. The worker may perceive it to be very difficult get a new work permit with a new employer.

These problems are even more serious for undocumented workers (without a work permit), such as Mr Younis, who may run into problems in enforcing their employment rights. 

The contract law doctrine of "illegality" means that their contract of employment may in some cases be tainted by their undocumented legal status, potentially depriving them of ordinary employment protections such as the minimum wage, rest breaks, and paid holidays. 

In the Supreme Court case involving Mr Younis, the judges said that this position might be reconsidered in a future case but, for the moment, the protection of undocumented workers under employment law is patchy – leaving them open to abuse by unscrupulous employers.

The Supreme Court upheld Mr Younis' €92,000 award.

What can be done?

Labour exploitation is often a hidden problem, which some argue is an inevitable by-product of capitalism and globalisation. 

However, there are some practical steps that can be taken by the State to try to prevent modern slavery situations arising and to detect them when they do occur. 

These include widening legal migration routes to try to reduce undocumented migration in sectors such as domestic work and the restaurant industry. 

This could be done by allowing migrant workers to change employer easily and with minimal expense, by providing labour inspectors with translators so that they can properly interview migrant workers, or by improving the enforceability of employment awards. 

Ireland needs to better tackle its modern slavery problem, which is damaging lives and challenging the integrity of our employment protection system.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ.