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Migrants forced to work 15 hours a day, seven days a week for pittance

When I first meet Jamil, I believe he's slightly hunched over out of shyness or mistrust. As our interview progresses, I realise his posture is a testament to his suffering in Ireland -- to the back-breaking work he was forced to do.

The dignified man in front of me left a wife and a young child at home in North Africa so he could earn enough to support them. Unemployment is high in his country and opportunities for those who have little access to education are rare.

Jamil (his name has been changed to protect his identity) worked in western Europe for a while, but it was only seasonal work. When an acquaintance said he could arrange a job for him in the then-booming Irish construction industry, Jamil could not believe his luck.

Little did he know that his dream of a better life for his family would be traded for modern-day enslavement.

While women coerced to work in the sex industry account for most people trafficked here, they are not the only victims. Men and women are also lured on the promise of a job to help them send money home to their families. Some pay to be smuggled, putting themselves into debt -- others arrive legally and can work here -- as long as it's with the employer who 'sponsored' them.

If that work visa runs out, they're completely vulnerable. The debt paid to smugglers or the nature of their visas are what make these people vulnerable.

Complaints

"We worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week without any days off for nine months," Rachid, one of Jamil's friends, explained. "I was paid a total of €85 for the first 13 days I was there, then €170 a week for the first three years, and that was raised to €300 a week after many complaints."

Jamil did not speak English when he arrived, but he trusted that the man who met him at the airport would bring him to the construction site where he would work and live.

A visa had been arranged for him. However, he soon found out that he would be working in a industry that had nothing to do with construction -- and that he would be living with three other men in a cramped trailer that had no basin or toilets. This is where he met the only friends he came to have in Ireland, Omar and Rachid (not their real names), who also shared their shocking story.

Although they earned a fraction of the minimum wage, the three men worked to ensure that they could send money home to Jamil's wife and son, Omar's severely ill mother, and Rachid's large family.

Their meals consisted of cheap ingredients such as beans, eggs and sardines. The first three years they were forced to use pub toilets. "It was so shameful, a few men who were working with us couldn't cope, they went home, but we felt this was our only chance of having an income, and we were also indebted to our families for our flights to Ireland," Rachid said.

"I was in my 20s when I arrived in Ireland, but I never had any energy, and because we were working all the time, and moving around, I never thought we'd meet anyone who could help us. It felt like we were in prison and years of our lives were just gone."

The three men considered leaving on many occasions, but once their permits expired, the only employer they knew and who would renew their visas, was the owner.

Their passports were also taken from them and they were promised a two-year work permit if they gave their boss €1,000 -- it never happened.

"Our employer used to talk down to us all the time, threaten us with our work permits and insult us," Omar said.

They escaped after Jamil was severely injured in work. They were put into contact with the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland.

The organisation believes the Irish business owner who exploited the three men should be brought to justice under the human trafficking law.

To date, there have been no prosecutions of cases of forced labour under the legislation.

hnews@herald.ie


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