How a global board games giant exploited Ireland's Magdalene women

The penance industry
By JP O’ Malley
14/04/2016

It’s almost impossible to think of my childhood in 1980s Dublin and not to think about Elsie. Elsie, my great aunt, was hilarious, caring, kind hearted, and good natured. But there was a strange, childlike innocence about her.

She was, I would later figure out, institutionalised by a totalitarian regime that had corruption and cruelty built into its DNA.

When we normally think of the Magdalene laundry scandals, the era most of us tend to associate it with is the Catholic theocracy of the 1950s. Black and white photos of women with scowls on their faces and nuns in white robes. It’s something we recognise from films. But not something we associate with modern Ireland.

As recently as the 1980s and 1990s, though, I remember witnessing at first hand, this world, where fervent religiosity melded with an invisible, and profitable economy. Elsie lived, and worked, in one of those infamous convent homes.

Like thousands of women in 20th century Ireland, Elsie was put in a convent for a life sentence.

Her crime?

Having a child out of wedlock.

Elsie was sent to the Good Shepherd Sisters in Newry, Co Down — presumably by her own family — some time in the 1950s. During the 1980s, she moved south, to the Good Shepherd Sisters in Waterford. It was there she lived, well into her late 80s, until she died, peacefully, in 2008.

Elsie spent well more than half a century under the authoritarian control of the nuns who became de facto moral-guardians of the Irish State.

My father, it seemed to me at least, was the only member of his extended family who ever took a real interest in Elsie's life. The older generation couldn't live with the shame. Priests and nuns were common in our family.

The assembly line

From as far back as I can remember, Elsie would talk openly to us kids about the work she did at the convent. She and the other women, she told us, were made to assemble and package popular Hasbro board games.

“Tell us about Buckaroo!, Elsie?” we used playfully mock her, because she always gave the exact same response.

"Oh God, don't talk to me about that aul Buckaroo," she'd say.

“And that bloody Mouse Trap, the worst of the lot of them.”

One Christmas, when I was 12, someone gave me a present of a KerPlunk set.I felt confused. Even at that age, I still felt there was something inherently sinister about deriving any kind of enjoyment from a gift that my great aunt could have packaged at the convent in Waterford.

I knew from the stories Elsie told us at home, every Christmas , about how strict the nuns were.

It wasn’t so much the words Elsie would use when she talked about them. But her gaze would shift when she mentioned them. The warm smile would vanish. It was replaced by a look of petrification.

All you had to do was look into Elsie’s eyes when she mentioned the Good Shepherd Sisters to understand how prevalent the culture of fear was.

The nuns were the masters, and the women – Elsie, and thousands of others – were treated like small school children.

In the mid to late 90s,the conservative theocracy was drastically transforming. A volcano of stories from the Magdalene laundries began exploding in the Irish press.

The years turned into decades.

But the Hasbro games story just kept nagging at me. I worked on numerous stories concerning the Catholic church for several papers in Ireland. And so the time seemed ripe to look into this topic.

‘Pocket money’

I began investigating this story back in September 2014, when I first made contact with Justice for

Magdalenes (JFM): a dedicated network of campaigners, human rights activists, lawyers and members from the Irish political community, that works tirelessly on behalf of survivors from the Magdalene laundries, to seek truth and justice.

It took me the best part of a year and a half to do my research, but, eventually, the facts came to light.

The Good Shepherd order of nuns, in Waterford, Ireland, has admitted putting laundry inmates to work on packaging board games such as Mouse Trap, KerPlunk and Buckaroo!.

In a statement to me for a story published in the Sunday Times they admitted that:

“In the 1980s, Hasbro entered into an agreement with the Good Shepherd Sisters in Waterford to provide materials for packaging by our residents. The residents who participated in this activity were regularly given what was then known as their ‘Hasbro money envelope’.”

The work continued over three decades, for a global toy market. "Pocket money" was paid instead of wages. The work was still being carried out as recently as four years ago.

Most of these women had previously worked in a Magdalene laundry run by the religious order, and continued to live in sheltered housing after it closed in 1996.

When asked about its business relationship over three decades with the Good Shepherd Sisters in Waterford, Hasbro Inc (a global toy franchise that presently has a market cap of $8billion, and whose products include television programming, motion pictures, and games) said that it had no direct commercial involvement with the order. Instead, the company said, it had a business relationship with Rehab, a charity that aims to help those with a disability in the workforce.

Trail of denial

Rehab says it had “no relationship with the women who were housed by the Good Shepherd order of nuns in Waterford.”

The Catholic hierarchy says it knew nothing of this commercial venture.

Alphonsus Cullinan, the Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, told The Sunday Times “I do not have authority over the internal working, or institutional procedures, of the Good Shepherd congregation.”

I interviewed several women in my research.

Two sources contacted me about board games. But these were from an earlier period and not for Hasbro. Nevertheless, the details of working conditions were horrendous.

The women insisted their names would be on an anonymous basis.

The first woman had been in the Good Shepherd Sisters convent in Waterford from 1964 to 1978. She said bringing up these memories was “extremely traumatic”.

She had packaged games, probably sometime in the 1970s, she admitted. This vagueness is a common theme with many of the survivors I interviewed. The past is so painful, they try to erase it from their memory as best they can.

The work involved, she said, “putting pieces in small plastic bags.”

“We received 50p for pocket money,” the woman explained.

“We put all our work into boxes, quickly, then the nuns would have someone count them,” she went on.

“If you didn't go fast enough, you had to stay longer. Sometimes, men would come in and talk to the nuns, and watch us do the work too,” she added.

Another woman, resident in the Good Shepherd convent in Waterford from 1963 to 1968, claimed she packaged games too.

Were there any wages for the work?

“No money, just food,” she told me.

I put adds in numerous regional papers: asking to speak to women who had worked packaging games for the Good Shepherd Sisters, from the 1980s onwards. Confidentiality was assured.

I then contacted the Good Shepherd Sisters, and their Dublin based PR spokespeople – Young Communications – several times.

Both parties refused to answers any questions I put to them.

Jim Burke, one local historian, who I had been assured was an “expert on the history of the Good Shepherd Sisters in Waterford”, said everybody he spoke to that worked in [Hasbro] Games[at the time] were “mystified about the notion of toys being made in the Good Shepherd convent.”

“[Hasbro] games and other [companies] in Waterford gave to the poor of this area, each Christmas, and did not ask for payment. Someone is putting you on the wrong path, JP,” Burke added.

It was all rather Catholic.

'They worked longer hours than the factory women'

Then, a crucial phone call came through. A woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, explained how she had been an employee in Hasbro Ireland for five years, during the 1980s.

Coincidently, her mother had been a resident in the Good Shepherd convent in Waterford at the time: working in the Magdalene laundries for many years.

“I can assure you,” the woman explained: “those women who worked in Hasbro Ireland, from the convent, that was their life.”

She sounded angry, emotional, and hurt.

The woman didn’t give exact working hours, but she assured me it was longer than the average working day.

“They worked longer hours than the factory women. But the [packaging] work was always done, on site, in the Good Shepherd convent,” she added.

The source kept talking. The details were compelling.

“I presume the women didn't have any work contracts, because any money they got went through whoever was the Mother Superior in the convent at the time ,” she explained.

“They were handed out 'pocket money' rather than wages,” she confirmed.

A multi national global corporation, with a presence on the New York Stock Exchange, was, allegedly, using a third party to get cheap labour done on a hush hush basis. And the whole operation was being described like a couple of scouts doing a bob-a-job.

Not only did footsoldiers working in Hasbro know about this work at the time, they felt they were being undercut for cheaper labour too.

“People working for Hasbro objected to [this work being done] on the grounds that Hasbro were letting full time people go at the same time,” the woman explained.

The Decline of the laundries

A credible narrative was coming into focus: Women who had worked in the Magdalene laundries for decades, had, over time, shifted into a new sector of industry when the global economy changed.

One revolutionary technological shift ensured this took place: the rapid rise of the washing machine as a popular household appliance during the1970s

Ha Joon Chang, an economist and the author of, 23 Things They Don't Tell You about Capitalism, has claimed the domestic washing machine has transformed the world more than the internet has.

A hyperbolic statement perhaps. But significantly, the technological shift led to the demise of the domestic service among other industries.

But for this particular story, one thing is crystal clear: the once lucrative business of the Magdalene laundries had ceased to be profitable by the 1980s.

The Good Shepherd Sisters, despite their benign name, have a historical record that displays a ferocious appetite for schadenfreude, cruelty, and being economical with the truth: especially when it comes to how they treated the women who were supposed to be in their care.

According to a 175 page report published in 2013 by JFM, entitled, State Involvement with the Magdalene Laundries – which was also given to many TD's in Dáil Éireann – women who worked specifically in the Good Shepherd Sisters in Waterford, for decades: “received no pay or pocket money either.”

So, are we to believe that, after decades exploiting women for cheap labour in the Magdalene laundries – where they openly pocketed the money they creamed in profits – the Good Shepherd Sisters suddenly changed tack, looked into their-moral- sacred-hearts, and began believing in equality for all?

Furthermore, along with the three other congregations of religious orders who ran the Magdalene laundries, the Good Shepherd Sisters, in July 2013, publicly stated that they would not be paying anything into a survivors redress scheme set up by the Irish government: this cost the Irish taxpayer €58 million.

Rehab doesn't exactly have a squeaky clean record either. In January 2014, an investigation carried out by Independent newspapers – based on evidence from both court and audit documents— showed the organisation was using money received from state coffers that was supposed to go to charity instead spent on advertising, professional fees, software licences, and stationery costs.

Further investigations showed Rehab was paying its eight senior executives excessive wages. The controversy caused Rehab to appoint an entire new group of board members in September 2014.

And Hasbro Inc? According to an article published in the Guardian in 2009, the global toy franchise has been challenged numerous times over human rights abuses in its Chinese supplier factories. While a 55 page report published by the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, in December 2015, said toys were being produced for Hasbro, in a factory in China, that was stripping workers of their rights, dignity and basic justice.

Mark Flynn, Industrial Organiser of the Manufacturing Division of the national trade union, SIPTU, in Waterford— told The Sunday Times: “If people were working on behalf of the Good Shepherd convent, and were not being paid proper wages, I would have thought that an infringement of Irish labour law.”

Follow the money?

Trying to pinpoint the money paid a mere drop in the ocean for a massive corporation like Hasbro Inc, is difficult. Hasbro has said it paid €25,000 per year to Rehab over roughly a 10-year period.

John Bowen Walsh, a technical executive at the Institute of Chartered Accountants, agreed. “A company that has expenses of, say, 3 or 4 million a year, might not disclose €25,000 on grounds of immateriality,” said Bowen-Walsh.

A quick glance at Hasbro Ireland's end of year financial report from the year 2000, for instance, shows the company has nominal share capital of £20 million. Trying to find €25,000 in there is near impossible.

Moreover, trying to trace various sums of monies that religious organisations, like the Good Shepherd Sisters, have tied up in assets, and in other companies, is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, primarily because religious organisations in Ireland are presently not held to the same level of scrutiny, in public, with their finances, as standard companies are.

Bowen-Walsh, from the Institute of Chartered Accountants, also said the legislation in this area was extremely vague.

“There is no law[in the Republic of Ireland] that says: here is what you do for accountability and administration if you are a religious organisation,” Bowen-Walsh explained.

The Good Shepherd order is a charity: listed by Revenue Commissioners as an organisation that has been granted Charitable Tax Exemption.

Thus, the paper trail for numerous religious orders in Irish society is almost impossible to track.

Quite frankly, because it doesn't exist.

And what about the actual money involved in this game packaging fiasco? Well, we're never going to know the full amount.

But let's take a conservative estimate, to all three parties concerned, just to be generous.

€25,000 was the sum Hasbro has admitted it paid. So let's use that as a base figure. And if a contract between Hasbro and the Good Shepherd Sisters lasted, supposedly, over a period of roughly say, 25 to 30 years: this could easily amount in excess of €750,000.

But if we are to calculate that amount from the time period – adjusted with price of inflation, factor in the change over from the punt to the euro, and take in other monetary considerations – the money runs into a couple of million euros, at least.

The shame economy

Most Magdalen women died in abject poverty, leaving next to nothing to their next of kin.

Most of them couldn't even afford a proper grave and are buried in communal graves with fellow Good Shepherd “lifers” and orphans.

These women worked far harder, for the duration of their lives, than most of us can ever even imagine; with some of them grafting away well into their 80s.

They spent decades behind high-grey-convent-walls, against their will, working away, packaging board games, without a complaint in the world to anyone: because they were brainwashed into believing they had committed a mortal sin, and were paying back their penance to Jesus.

The Good Shepherd Sisters have continually tried to erase these “forgotten women” from our collective consciousness; and want to relegate them to the dustbin of Irish history.

In the wake of the centenary celebrations of 1916, Ireland, more than ever, is striving to come to terms with the ghosts of its own history.

In doing so, there is a hope that coming generations might experience, what President Michael D Higgins recently referred to – in his keynote speech about the rising, in the Mansion House in Dublin – as “ freedom from poverty, freedom from violence and insecurity and freedom from fear."

Irish society is now educated, tolerant, secular, and mature enough, to understand these women who were placed in convents for having children out of wedlock, did nothing wrong.

They committed no crime applicable under Irish law. In fact, many ended up there because they were the victims of sexual abuse. But the state, and Irish society, at large, paradoxically, chose to punish these women for the behaviour of men: all in the name of Catholic morality.

And once these women were placed in these institutions, they served a valuable function for the religious organisations that controlled them. Namely, working in an economy that was essentially outside the law.

Maybe one day, these “forgotten women” will receive the justice they truly deserve. Most of them are now long deceased.

But a simple apology, or acknowledgement at the very least, to recognise their hard work – from either the Good Shepherd Sisters, the Catholic hierarchy, Hasbro Inc, or Rehab – would display some semblance of humanity decency.