Det Sgt Roberts said they are typically Vietnamese or Chinese migrants trafficked into the country, though “mostly with their consent”, and are paid, though often not a huge amount.
“They’re gardeners and tend to the crops and are left there for months on end. From a human perspective, it’s quite sad to see,” he said. “The conditions are squalid. They are a small part of a money-making enterprise.”
He said the GNDU would seek the assistance of the Garda National Immigration Bureau for records on Chinese or Vietnamese nationals arrested in factories to establish their identities. Court cases highlight this reality, which also affects Eastern Europeans.
At Cork Circuit Criminal Court last June, Lithuanian man Adas Backovas was described by his barrister as an “indentured servant” at the time gardaí discovered 215 cannabis plants, worth €172,000, in an underground bunker at Derreenaling, Ballyvourney, Co Cork, in Mar 2013.
His barrister said his client, aged 31, lived in diabolical conditions. The court also heard he had been promised €10,000 for his work, but had not been paid by the time gardaí discovered the bunker. Judge Patrick J Moran said Backovas engaged in the enterprise to make money, and had a similar conviction in England. He jailed him for five years.
On the same day, Judge Moran presided over the case of Chinese National Meng Feng Chen, one of two Chinese gardeners used in the cultivation of €680,000 worth of cannabis at a business park in Rathcormac, Co Cork.
Supt Michael Comyns accepted that the 32-year-old was being held in virtual slavery at the site, discovered in Nov 2012.
The court heard food was supplied to Meng but it was all past its best before date. The court also heard that Meng owed €10,000 for being brought to Ireland illegally and was working as a gardener to pay his debt.
Supt Comyns accepted that Meng exhibited fear of people for whom he was working. Judge Moran said: “She [your barrister] has described your position very accurately in that you were a prisoner and in slavery. It is a terrible thing to think that this can happen in Ireland in 2012.”
Nevertheless, he imposed a five-year sentence, suspending the final year.
In Dec 2012, Dublin Circuit Criminal Court heard that two Chinese men, Xiabin Huang, 30, and Yong Chen, 35, were forced in live in a humid industrial lock-up in close proximity to chemicals at a cannabis plant in the Millennium Business Park, Cappagh Rd, Ballycoolin, north Dublin. Gardaí found 900 plants, worth around €800,000.
Judge Martin Nolan said the men were economic migrants who had carried out a “crime of desperation”. He imposed sentences of two years on both.
Garda Colm Grogan said the men shared a mattress on the floor and had only a hand basin to wash themselves. He described their conditions as “horrendous”.
Chen’s barrister said money lenders in China had financed the trip to Ireland and had taken the home of his family.
In May 2011, in another case, Judge Nolan described a Vietnamese asylum seeker as “basically, a functionary or slave”.
Cong Pham, 35, was found at a factory on Ballybough Rd in Dublin’s north inner city in Apr 2010.
Garda Damian Guckian said Pham was in fear of the people running the operation and was doing the “donkey work” in return for bed and board “in fairly abject surroundings”.
Judge Nolan imposed a two-year sentence.
Last April, a European Commission-funded project, involving Migrant Rights Centre Ireland, produced a briefing paper which said children and adults were being trafficked across Europe for “forced labour in cannabis factories”. It said the vast majority were from South East Asia, mainly Vietnam.
The briefing said they were exposed to constant heat and light. It said that in 2011, 302 Asians were incarcerated in Ireland for drug offences.
Last month, the EU police agency highlighted a rise in what it called facilitated illegal immigration of Vietnamese in Europe by organised crime groups.
Europol said the irregular migrants have been found working as gardeners in cannabis plantations, at nail bars and as couriers for some drug dealers. It said the facilitated immigration posed a “significant threat” to the EU and that the number of cases in which Europol was involved had doubled in 2013 to 20 investigations.
Europol said the gangs charged in the region of €4,000 to bring a migrant from Poland to the UK.
It said certain organised crime gangs specialise in providing fraudulent documents, such as visas. The gangs obtain visas by providing false invitation letters and other false supporting documents.
Europol said a “full package”, including invitation and visa, can cost up to €15,000.