Forced Labour In Cannabis Grow Houses: An Investigation into the Exploitation of Chinese and Vietnamese Immigrants

Marijuana plant - Photo Credit: Dhillan Chandramowli

“These are vulnerable people who are trafficked into the country, often against their will”
–Aodhán Ó Ríordáin

On Tuesday the 1st of April 2014, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin addressed the Dail, demanding new legislation be intruduced for victims of forced labour and human trafficking. Aodhán is the only TD who appears to be speaking out against a new pattern of coerced behavior to primarily Asian ‘gardeners’ in the Irish criminal underworld.

The Irish cannabis market has changed dramatically over the previous five years. Up until the mid-2000s, localised drug cultivation was not a traditional method utilised by criminal gangs in Ireland. The introduction of industrial ‘grow houses’ has caused radical changes to both the way criminals behave and who they associate with. As superintendent John O’Driscoll of the Garda National Drugs Unit described it; “ Grow Houses are large scale operations that tend to take place in industrial estates, where a group of ‘gardeners’ will produce cannabis plants for the Irish market.”

Each plant has the “potential to make €800.” As being an industrialised drug dealer is not a legal profession, it’s also tax free. This means that a few thousand plants at the potential profit margin of  €800 can amass huge financial gain for those in charge. From his office in Dublin Castle, Superintendent O’Driscoll  provided photographic evidence of a ‘grow house’ from a previous case.

Growhouse Industrial Complex: Courtesy of Supt John O'Driscoll
Growhouse Industrial Complex: Courtesy of Supt John O’Driscoll

He explained that typically, the owner of the establishment will be unaware of the criminal presence occurring within their compound. Gangs have used innovative tactics to avoid detection from authorities. Initially, the gardaí would locate the ‘grow houses’ by checking the amounts of electricity being used in areas, such as industrial estates. If it were obvious that an unnecessary exertion of power was being generated in one specific location, “chances were, suspicious activity was taking place”. Another method of detection the Superindendent mentioned, was through accessing energy waves via heat censored cameras in helicopters.

However, he described that gangs are now implementing obstacles to counter Garda intelligence. For instance, the large generates needed to heat and light the cannabis plants are often at far distances from where the cultivation is actually taking place. This is done through an intricate process of underground wiring. Gangs are now using effective covering over the areas where growing takes place, that block the energy waves on heat sensors.

Who are the ‘gardeners’ and why is there apparent cause for public outcry?

It has been reported in media outlets, such as the Sunday Word and the Irish Examiner, in tandem with TD  Ó Ríordáin’s speech in the Dail, that Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants are being trafficked into the country by criminal gangs and forced to work in ‘grow houses’. The most unfortunate factor in these stories being that prior to detection by gardaí, these ‘gardeners’ are arrested and jailed.

The vast majority of media reports cite the Migrant Rights Centre of Ireland (MRCI) as their main source of information. The MRCI recently published a PDF research document; Trafficking for Forced Labour in Cannabis Production: The Case for Ireland, as part of a wider European study into the unwilling involvement in drug cultivation. The study is led by Anti-slavery International (ASI). One of the key objectives of  this organisation is to prevent forced labour and human trafficking. According to the MRCI, Ireland and the UK are areas where serious injustices are taking place involving gang related human trafficking and modern day slavery.  The victims of which being primarily from China and Vietnam.

It is stated in the document that out of the 50 people jailed for cannabis cultivation last year, 36 were Asian immigrants. A startling 75% of Chinese and Vietnamese nationals who had been arrested for criminal drug production charges in the last year claimed they were the victims of exploitation. These staggering figures were presented to the Chinese Embassy as part of this investigation.

The representative on the line of the Ambassador’s Office  claimed he was unsure as to what the information meant upon the first call. When he was called again several days later, the office ‘s representative said “I was not aware of that”, in relation to the Chinese victims of trafficking and subsequent imprisonment. After explaining the MRCI report in detail, the office asked “how do I spell that?” and requested online reading, for which he was directed to. Arguably, the reaction one might have to such a serious matter going undetected by the Embassy, could be one of surprise and skepticism. It must be maintained  however, that no evidence suggested any dishonesty or manipulation of truth.

Superintendent O’Driscoll explained that the organisational structure of the ‘grow houses’ are almost always steeped in anonymity, in terms of management. From what the gardaí have come to understand,  the premises used for cannabis cultivation are only inhabited by the ‘gardeners’ and not the ones in charge. Chinese and Vietnamese criminals usually work alongside Irish gangs, who provide inspectors of the ‘grow houses’, that oversee the progress at a safe distance. This is the main reason why the Chinese and Vietnamese ‘gardeners’ are being arrested instead of the criminals who stand to make the largest profit.

Photo Credit: Bruno Malkaviano (Flickr)
Photo Credit: Bruno Malkaviano (Flickr)

O’Driscoll however disagreed with the figures mentioned in the MRCI report. Though he fully acknowledged that human trafficking and forced labour can certainly occur in Ireland, the Superintendent stated it only happens in isolated cases and from what he has directly witnessed, this is not a big problem in Ireland. “We just don’t see it that much.” O’Driscoll explained in detail that when a ‘grow house’ is discovered, “the first thing we check for  are signs of coercion”. He stated that the Garda team check to see if the doors are locked, if the ‘gardeners’ have been held in a facility of which they can’t escape and if they have adequate conditions.

O’Driscoll said that in the vast majority of cases, the people inside the ‘grow houses’ had mobile phones, had the means in which to leave and demonstrated no signs of being the victims of slavery. Thus, as far as the Garda National Drugs Unit are concerned, the media coverage consisting of stories about abuse on a massive scale, combined with the MRCI /ASI documents, are widely exaggerated. The Superintendent stressed that this problem could in theory exist, however it would need to be somehow unknown to the gardaí entirely. Why are the European research centers presenting information that does not match up with the first-hand experience of a senior officer in An Garda Síochána?

A possible reason could be that the MRCI statistics are based on prisoners who claimed they were victims of human trafficking and not those who had been proven. O’Driscoll spoke about this, saying that after being arrested, some ‘gardeners’ do claim have been trafficked into the country and forced to work. He mentioned that immediate background checks are carried out, yet it is extremely rare to find proof that someone has been trafficked. This is a matter that is commonly raised in court hearings.

He said that in the vast majority of cases, evidence of the accused cannabis cultivators being forced into the country could not be found. He said it was far more likely that Chinese and Vietnamese ‘gardeners’ work in ‘grow houses’ to send money back home to their families. Though the wage they receive is usually far below the Irish minimum, it is worth significantly more in some Asian nations.

The perspective from the Head of the Garda National Drugs Unit was highlighted in a following conversation with TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin during this investigation. The labour TD neither agreed nor disagreed with the MRCI/ASI findings as being factual, while also stating that he believed the Gardai do work hard on trying to deal with the issue fairly. He disagreed with the human trafficking and forced labour being an isolated incident however, saying that Chinese and Vietnamese nationals enter the country “often against their will”. More so, he expressed that regardless of whether or not the ‘gardeners’ had been victims of slavery, the vast majority were vulnerable people with a poor and sometimes non-existing understanding of English.

Ó Ríordáin acknowledged that under Irish law, the gardaí have no choice but to arrest the workers in ‘grow houses’ when they are discovered, but he believes the Irish system is treating these people as the main culprits. He claimed that in reality they are merely “foot soldiers” of a far more sinister power structure.

A story in 2012 involving a Chinese ‘gardener’ in Cork, named Meng Feng Chen reveals an example of the grey area that our system has in place. He was an illegal immigrant who owed €10,000 to criminals, who he alleged forced him to work in fear on a cultivation site worth €680,000. Though he claimed to have been abused and given food that was alarmingly passed its sell-by date, the judge reluctantly sentenced him to 5 years in prison. Perhaps this case is rare, perhaps it is frequent. Unfortunately it is often impossible to prove that these people truly are the victims they claim to be. One thing is certain however, criminal leaders are using this country to make large amounts of tax-free money. Surely a serious conversation between representatives of countries like Ireland, Vietnam and China needs to occur.


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