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File photo of a fisherman AP/Press Association Images
Human Trafficking

Migrant fishermen 'treated like modern slaves'

Some work 116 hours per week, yet are only paid an average of €2.83 per hour, the High Court was told.

MIGRANT FISHERMEN WORKING on Irish-registered trawlers have claimed they are exploited, underpaid, racially abused and worked to exhaustion. 

In some cases, they are assaulted to a degree that their working conditions are akin to “modern slavery”, the High Court has heard.

The court also heard that the investigations carried out by migrants’ rights groups have revealed that, on average, fishermen from non-EEA countries work an average of approximately 116 hours per week, yet are only paid an average of €2.83 per hour.

Arising out of complaints made by fishermen, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) has brought proceedings against the State over a work permit scheme it claims is allowing the fishermen to be exploited.

The ITF said there are over a dozen cases of potential human trafficking arising from the scheme that are the subject of criminal investigations.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has been joined to the case as an ‘amicus curiae’ or ‘friend to the court’. Its counsel, Feichin McDonagh SC, told the court today the case raised “important human rights issues”.

In a preliminary application, the federation – which represents unions and transport workers all over the world – wants injunctions including one preventing any work permits under a scheme known as Atypical Working Scheme for Non-EEA Crew in the Irish Fishing Fleet by the State be granted or renewed.

The scheme was introduced by the government in 2016 following the exploitation of workers within the Irish fishing industry being exposed in a British newspaper report.

The ITF claims the scheme does not protect workers from exploitation and human trafficking, and wants the injunction to be kept in place until its case against the scheme has been decided.

The action is against the Minister for Justice and Equality, Ireland and the Attorney General. Represented by Sara Moorhead SC, it has opposed the application for an injunction on grounds including that the ITF does not have the legal standing to bring the action.

Counsel said ITF’s claims concerning the scheme were hotly contested. While emotive language was being used in court it was not the case that the minister or the State was being complicit in any alleged trafficking or exploitation of persons.

Hourly wage of €2.83

Opening the case Matthias Kelly SC, with Michael Lynn SC, for the ITF, described the situation several of the men the IFT had dealt was akin to “modern human slavery”.

The scheme in the way it is framed had the unintended effect of not protecting workers who come from mainly African and Asian countries, they argued.

Lynn said the action is urgent as the ITF wants to ensure no more workers end up being exploited, adding there is a positive obligation on the State to prevent human trafficking.

Kelly said the ITF and many other bodies, ranging from Irish-based groups that deal with migrants to EU bodies and the US State Department, have raised concerns about the effect the scheme has on human trafficking and the exploitation of workers.

Counsel said a report by the Irish Migrant Centre had revealed that exploitation of non-EEA fishermen in the Irish fleet was “widespread”. These men council said were working an average of 116.9 hours a week and yet only received an average hourly wage of €2.83.

Counsel read sworn statements given by a number of the fishermen who claim they have been exploited while working in Ireland.

They were given contracts by fishing boat owners which allow them to work legally in the Irish fishing fleet. However, the men said they were paid well below the minimum wage – which they are legally entitled to.

The men said they were let go from the vessels despite being owed from between €7,000 to €45,000 for hours they worked and were paid far less than Irish or EU fishermen.

The men gave details of the physical and racial abuse they endured while working.

They said boats they worked on were often under-crewed, and expressed concerns at the level of health and safety standards.

One said the vessel he worked on didn’t have a fully functioning radar, and there were a number of near misses at sea. They all complained of working long hours, up to 20 hours a day at sea, and exhaustion.

They said they were often asked to sign documents that contained false information, hide fish that exceeded the boat’s fishing quotas, and given more dangerous work at sea than their EU crewmates.

If they complained the man said they were threatened with deportation, and in one case one of the men said he was assaulted.

One man said one of his skippers had taken drugs while at sea including cannabis, cocaine and heroin.

The injunction application, which is before Mr Justice Tony O’Connor, continues.

Comments are closed due to ongoing legal proceedings. 

Aodhan O Faolain