Call to tackle forced labour
Rogue employers who operate modern forms of slavery in Northern Ireland to increase profits should be tackled, an expert said.
Dr Neil Jarman claimed up to 150 people may be victims of forced labour. Some businesses in the mushroom-growing industry and restaurants are potential offenders, the academic from Queens University Belfast (QUB) added, although there have been improvements in agriculture.
Justice ministers north and south of the border pledged to crack down on the evil trade during a cross-border conference in Newry, Co Down.
Dr Jarman said: "In some senses we are all complicit in it because we all benefit from it through the supply chain."
He explained that forced labour could drive down the cost of the finished product.
The researcher called for greater investigation into employment practices rather than relying on victims coming forward.
"We need to address the issue of prosecution if we are going to build wider confidence that there is a real desire to get on top of this issue."
In 2013/14 in Northern Ireland 36 people were identified as potential victims of all forms of trafficking, sexual, domestic and forced labour exploitation, the researcher said.
Over the last five years 28 cases of forced labour have been identified.
Stormont justice minister David Ford said: "The past year has seen both growing evidence as well as increasing awareness of the issue of forced labour right across the island."
Irish justice minister of state Aodhan O'Riordain noted the issues surrounding it were complex; defining when a person was freely giving labour could be difficult.
He pointed to the recent prosecution of three people in Romania for trafficking in Ireland, largely on information provided by the Garda.
"Our primary concern must be to find and protect those men, women and children who are being exploited.
"We must find and protect them and continue with our efforts to prosecute those who seek to make money from their misery."
Grainne O'Toole, workplace rights co-ordinator at the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland, said people were being trafficked into the country to produce cannabis. Her organisation has identified 22 cases and she claimed 70 people of mainly Vietnamese and Chinese origin were imprisoned potential victims of trafficking.
"We have people in prison at the moment who should not be there and people are very clear about that."
Mariaam Bhatti is a member of the domestic workers action group at the Migrant Rights Centre and said she was exploited in Ireland after arriving from South Africa in 2010.
She said she had to work 12 hour days six days a week, her employer took her passport off her and she became undocumented after immigration requirements were not dealt with.
She claimed she was only allowed out of the house to take the children to the park or school.
She said victims appeared well-groomed in public but warned: "Slavery exists, it is not in chains."