4.4 Magdalene laundries
This course has so far considered examples of forced labour perpetrated by individuals or businesses. This section will consider an example of forced labour, which was administered, run and tolerated by the Roman Catholic Church, primarily in Ireland, from the eighteenth to the late twentieth century.
Magdalene laundries (also referred to as the Magdalene asylums) were originally created in the mid-eighteenth century and were run by the Magdalene sisters under the auspices of the Catholic Church. The initial aim of these institutions was to provide shelter and alternative work for prostitutes. However, in the early twentieth century, they became centres of exploitation, violent abuse and forced labour. By then, the laundries had become ‘a destination’ (albeit not a voluntary one) for not only prostitutes but all ‘fallen women’, who transgressed socially accepted behaviours. Many women found themselves in laundries because they engaged in premarital sex or because they had children out of wedlock. In cases of the latter, children were automatically put up for adoption by the Catholic Church, with mothers being unable to keep (or in some cases even see) their babies. Women were forced to work long hours in the laundries and received no remuneration for their work. If women objected to the work, they were physically punished or denied food. They were also not allowed to leave the Magdalene asylums, which meant that they were practically incarcerated. This short video,The Magdalene Laundries Ireland – a Documentary Clip from ‘The Forgotten Maggies’ (2011), from the documentary Forgotten Maggies gives an insight into the reality faced by women incarcerated in Magdalene laundries.
The Magdalene laundries existed both in the UK and in Ireland, with Irish Magdalene laundries surviving the longest. The last laundry closed in 1996.
The Irish Government demonstrably failed to protect the victims from violations of their human rights. However, for many years, the Catholic Church and the Irish Government denied complicity in the appalling practice of the running of the Magdalene laundries. For many women, it meant that not only their human rights were violated during their time spent in the laundries, but also that they were denied access to justice. Following many years of lobbying by advocacy groups, particularly Justice for Magdalenes (who also gave a statement before the UN Committee Against Torture), the Irish Government issued an official apology to the victims of Magdalene laundries in 2013, via Magdalene Laundries: Enda Kenny Delivers State Apology (BBC News, 2013). The Irish Government is now also engaged in providing a compensation package to the victims.