Monday, October 8, 2012

Slavery and the Magdalene laundries

Did you know that there are an estimated 27 million slaves in the world today?  I didn’t. Many are forced labourers and soldiers – many of them children – coerced, sold, traded into involuntary service and over half of forced labourers and almost all of sex trafficking victims are women and young girls.

In the language of the 21st century the word slavery has been largely replaced with the term human trafficking or trafficking in persons. But it is still slavery. It takes many forms from sexual exploitation, forced labour in sweat shops and factories, to debt bondage. And modern slavery is not confined to the developing world. Trafficking in persons is a serious problem in the developed world. According to statistics from the US State department at least 14,500 people are trafficked into the USA every year.

For many the notion of slavery is linked to the slave ships that plied their trade across the Atlantic between Africa and the USA; and the American Civil War that freed the slaves but didn’t bring freedom or equality or justice for many generations.

There were Irish slaves too. Thousands were sold by the British in the 17th century to the plantations in the Caribbean while many more were indentured servants – little better than slaves.

But the realisation that slavery today is a world-wide phenomenon that continues to exist in many countries is a surprise.

Each year I attend the Clinton Global Initiative conference in New York run by former President Bill Clinton. And each year the issue of human trafficking and in particular of women and young girls, and the conditions of their employment and exploitation as sex workers, is the subject of debate. I was there two weeks ago and this issue was given added weight on the final day of the CGI in a speech by President Obama who dedicated his entire remarks to the issue of modern slavery.

He said: “When a man, desperate for work, finds himself in a factory or on a fishing boat or in a field, working, toiling, for little or no pay, and beaten if he tries to escape -- that is slavery. When a woman is locked in a sweatshop, or trapped in a home as a domestic servant, alone and abused and incapable of leaving -- that’s slavery. When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed -- that’s slavery. When a little girl is sold by her impoverished family -- girls my daughters’ age -- runs away from home, or is lured by the false promises of a better life, and then imprisoned in a brothel and tortured if she resists -- that’s slavery. It is barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world.”

On the same day that Obama made his remarks Sinn Féin introduced a Private Members Motion into the Dáil to help the victims of a form of slavery that for many decades passed unnoticed in the Irish state and which even today this Irish government is failing to deal with properly.

The Magdalene asylums first opened their doors in Ireland approximately 200 years ago. They were first run by Protestant orders initially seeking to ‘rehabilitate’ prostitutes. The institutions were taken over by four Catholic religious orders.  Over time the state increasingly used these institutions as a place to deal with a multitude of social problems including, poverty, disability, so-called immoral behaviour, babies born out of wedlock, domestic and sexual abuse, youth crime, and infanticide. The religious orders in turn used these girls and women as unpaid labour.
The last operating laundry closed its doors on Sean McDermott Street in 1996 with 40 women still in residence, the eldest of them 79, the youngest in her 40s.

Women incarcerated in these institutions worked for no pay whilst the orders ran the laundries on a commercial basis in brutally harsh conditions. There were 10 laundries in Dublin, Waterford, Limerick, Cork, Galway and Wexford. The State provided direct and indirect financial support to the Laundries.

The Ryan Report (2009) details the women’s forced unpaid labour in the Laundries and states that their working conditions were harsh, they were completely deprived of their liberty and suffered both physical and emotional abuse. Those who tried to escape and were caught by the Garda were returned to the institutions.
The Magdalene women were excluded by the State from the 2002 Residential Institutions Redress Scheme established to pay victims of abuse in Church run institutions like the industrial school system primarily on the basis that the laundries were privately run and it claimed it therefore had to involvement in the institutions.

In June 2011the government set up an interdepartmental Committee into the Magdalene Laundries for the purpose of clarifying any State interaction with the Magdalene Laundries. Senator Martin McAleese was appointed chair of the Committee. His final report was due in July but the deadline for its publication is now the end of the year.
The Sinn Féin motion was intended to support the work of the McAleese committee and to persuade the government to take steps now to alleviate some of the trauma still being suffered by these women all of whom are elderly.

But more immediately the motion was about getting the government to establish a helpline for the women and commit it to support survivors in accessing pensions that they are entitled to for all their years of hard and painful work without pay in the laundries.
In opposition both Labour and Fine Gael criticised the Fianna Fáil Government for excluding both the Magdalene Laundries and Bethany Home from the redress scheme. In government Labour and Fine Gael are hiding behind the McAleese report to do nothing.

Worse in their defence of the government’s amendment to the motion, which they forced through on a vote, they questioned the established facts surrounding the treatment of the women.
Labour Minister Kathleen Lynch said she did not doubt the sincerity of the women or ‘have sympathy with them for the hardships they faced and endured’ but then did exactly that by arguing that the state ‘cannot leap to conclusions’.

‘The facts remain undetermined’ said Minister Kathleen Lynch.
Not true. The facts are well known and have been graphically presented in previous reports, including some by international agencies; by the survivors and in a recent report produced by Justice for the Magdalenes.

These women endured slavery and successive Irish governments colluded in this. That was shameful. But it is even more dishonourable that this government should fail to resolve this issue and chose instead to add hurt to the victims by doubting their veracity.
Finally, I recently read a poem by Maya Angelou. It relates to the slavery of black people but isn’t exclusive to them. It says so much about the courage and heroism of those of whatever colour who resist slavery and determine to rise above it. As I read it I thought of the women and girls of the Magdalene laundries.

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.



Timothy Dougherty said...

Hello Gerry,
A timely and well done and proper report. I had been in contact with the Actress Mira Sorvino, on this film subject,"Trade of Innocents" tells a compelling story about child trafficking. I been most interesting in the history of Magdalene Laundries. Good to see you at work, keeping this subject in the minds of the Irish government and people. I just been reading a interesting text: TEXT: Forced labor in the United States (c1933) a free e-book to download. Put a light on this subject in a historcial view. Great job Gerry, thank-you once again

mtsteed said...

Thank you, Gerry, on behalf of all of us at Justice for Magdalenes. And one of my favourite Maya Angelou poems...very fitting!