Speech from Anna Lo on Migrant Workers and Human Trafficking

I commend the member for bringing forward the motion to debate two issues which are of growing concern to the public. I would have liked to discuss the exploitation of migrant workers and human trafficking in two separate motions because they are very different issues, each deserving the attention of a full debate.

However, given the constrain of this motion, I would start with the issue of migrant workers.

It is estimated that since 2003, some 40 to 50 thousand migrant workers have come to take up jobs that we cannot fill locally.

Various research findings including the Concordia policy paper have indicated that the overall impact of migration into Northern Ireland has been very positive, both in the local and regional economy apart from the benefits of having a more intercultural society. Migrant workers have not only met our labour shortages in health care and local industries such as construction, agriculture, food processing and hospitality, but also prevented hospital wards being closed or meat plants being relocated elsewhere, which would have resulted in job losses for local people.

So migrants come here not to share our prosperity, but to enhance it. The UK Institute of Public Policy Research confirmed in their study that far from being a drain on the public purse, immigrants actually contribute more than their share fiscally. More people also mean more tax revenue and service users. Additionally, migrant workers regenerate local economy by paying for food, housing and services. For example, we can reliably say that a number of schools would have closed had it not been for children of migrant workers.

The argument that the demographic change has led to pressures on public services is fundamentally a matter of inadequate planning on the part of public authorities and the failure, still ongoing, to plan far enough into the future – that is what we meant, in our response to the Programme for Government, by ‘sustainable public services’.

Mr Speaker, while a large proportion of migrant workers have good experiences in employment, housing and services, unfortunately many members of this house would have dealt with instances of abuse of employment and housing rights, difficulties in accessing public services and racism – both direct and institutional. There is now a raft of literature documenting the issue of migrant labour exploitation by ANIMATE, trade unions and others.

I support the call for the ratification of the UN International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families. It’s shameful that both the UK and Irish governments have not yet signed up to the convention. In fact, most of the countries which have ratified it are countries of origin of migrant workers.

Apart from the UN convention, we do have a range of international instruments that apply to migrant workers to which the UK is a contracting party and there is existing domestic law in employment and equality. It is clear that current legislation has not been rigorously enforced.

Although immigration is an excepted matter, the Assembly should show its concern on the many new immigration policies focusing on the economic benefit we can get from migrants rather than giving consideration to migrants’ entitlement to human rights and dignity.

There is much we can do on the ground. The Executive must urgently approve the draft Migrant Worker Strategy and Action Plan produced by the Racial Equality Forum’s Thematic Sub-group on migrant workers, led by the Department of Employment and Learning. The key strands in the draft strategy presented to the Forum in 2006 include the development of information, effective inspection and enforcement of employment rights, research and data gathering and promotion of best practice. In addition, the Executive must gather pace on producing the second departmental Action Plan of the Racial Equality Strategy which is overdue now for almost a year. Both action plans can address the problems experienced by migrant workers on a daily basis and improve their quality of life.

In terms of human trafficking, it is such an irony that we might have just celebrated the bicentenary of the abolition of slave trade but we are still seeing the global problem of human trafficking which is in fact a modern-day slavery. It is estimated some 4,000 individuals are trafficked into the UK each year for the purposes of enforced prostitution. The victims are predominantly women and children from poor countries or countries experiencing unrest. After being brought into the country illegally, the traffickers use violence, threats, coercion to force their victims to work against their will.

In a submission to the UK Joint Committee on Human Rights examining human trafficking, Women’s Aid identified through its research between 50 to 100 women and minors who might have been trafficked into NI. The PSNI has recently charged two men in connection with human trafficking. It is aware of 60-70 brothels in the province with up to ten or twelve of them operating in South Belfast.

Police sources also indicated that Northern Ireland is a transit route from Dublin to other parts of the UK and vice versa. It is believed that paramilitary groups and their links with overseas gangs such as the so-called ‘snakeheads’ may also be involved in human trafficking here.

I support the call for UK to ratify the Council of Europe Convention on Action Against Trafficking in Human Beings as early as possible now that it has signed up to the convention. It is important that the British Government set a target date for ratification and publish an action plan. The protection of victims should be incorporated into the legislative framework, treating trafficked persons as victims needing protection, not as illegal immigrants facing immediate deportation.

The Joint Committee on Human Rights report made a comprehensive list of recommendations including prevention in source countries, measures to stop demand of the sex trade, proper investigation, prosecution and punishment of traffickers and protection of victims. It is important too there should be more awareness-raising of the problem and training for immigration and law enforcement officers. Statutory agencies should work with the voluntary organisations providing support and shelter for victims.

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