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'Severe exploitation' of migrant fishers a daily recurrence, Oireachtas committee to hear

A report published this week highlighted issues with “extremely long working hours with few breaks,” and pay often below minimum wage.

Image: Shutterstock/Jorge Manso

THE PLIGHT OF non-European migrant fishers working on Irish vessels has been highlighted during an Oireachtas Committee hearing today from a group set to launch legal proceedings against the government over a “botched” transposition of EU law.

The employment committee has been told that “severe exploitation” of migrant fishers is continuing through a lack of due process to complain or seek redress, and a lack of action on these issues by several Government departments. 

It comes as Maynooth University published a report yesterday that compiles the experiences of non-EEA workers in the fishing industry, highlighting issues with “extremely long working hours with few breaks,” and pay often below minimum wage.

The report also found that over half of the participants had been subjected to racial and verbal abuse.

Michael O’Brien, fisheries campaign lead at the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), told the Oireachtas committee that the crux of the issue is a Government scheme that ties the workers to their employer. 

He also raised issues with a deadline to make a complaint about an employer to the Workplace Relations Commission, which has to be six months from the time the alleged incident takes place, or 12 months if certain criteria are met.

O’Brien said that the IFT had encountered a number of cases of fishers who have “endured regimes of overwork for periods spanning years” who were not aware of time-bound recourses open to them. 

He said that when workers were made aware of the time limit, they felt “unable” to let the ITF submit a complaint on their behalf, because their contract has to be renewed by the vessel owner, to whom they are tied on an annual basis.

The ITF has previously told the Oireachtas Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Employment that non-EEA migrant fishers working on Irish vessels had experienced “gross exploitation coupled with institutional obstacles”.

In April 2019, following a High Court case, reforms were made to the Atypical Scheme, which since 2016 has allowed non-EEA fishers to work on whitefish vessels over 15 metres in length.

But the ITF said that in the two years since, mostly during the Covid-19 pandemic, conditions have not drastically changed for migrant fishers under the scheme.

Legal action

The Business Post reported at the weekend that the ITF is to launch a High Court action over the Irish State’s application of an EU directive on working conditions for migrant workers in the fishing industry. 

O’Brien has accused the Minister for Transport of transposing the directive “in a botched fashion”, in relation to the process for complaints and redress. 

The workers’ rights group is working with a former migrant fisher in taking the judicial review to force the government to “correctly transpose” the EU’s Working Time at Sea directive, with “clear reference periods” and jurisdiction for the WRC and Labour Court to hear these complaints.

The Department of Transport said that it was “satisfied” that the Directive is correctly transposed.

“The Marine Survey Office (MSO) carries out inspections for compliance with hours of work and rest on fishing vessels and follows-up up on any complaints. During the Covid-19 restrictions, the MSO continued with its inspection programme on fishing vessels as outlined in the Maynooth University report on the ‘Experiences of non-EEA Workers in the Irish Fishing Industry’ which was published earlier this week.”

Work on the issue is ongoing

The Workplace Relations Commission also addressed the same committee today, and told its members that since the introduction of the Atypical Worker Permission Scheme in 2016, the WRC has carried out 490 inspections of the 170 vessels in the Scheme.

To date, some 20 prosecutions have been brought against fishing vessel owners in relation to offences under employment legislation.

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“However, unlike typical inspections, in this sector WRC inspectors do not have responsibility for enforcing compliance with rest period and maximum working hours requirements in the fishing sector, this role is carried out by the Marine Surveyors of the Department of Transport,” it said in its opening statement.

Discussions are also due to take place between the ITF fisheries campaign in Ireland and representatives of the Ghanaian seafarer’s union MDU during next week’s West Africa Fisheries Organising Project conference taking place in Senegal to see what steps can be taken to combat the activities of bogus recruitment agents in Ghana.

The Department of Agriculture said that the application of the Working Time Directive, as it concerns the fishing industry, is a matter for the Department of Transport, which has lead responsibility for working time at sea, manning arrangements and maritime safety.

However, it added that the Atypical Working Scheme was established as a Government response to concerns about the conditions of employment of non-EEA workers in the Irish fishing fleet.

“It put in place practical arrangements that enabled the risk of exploitation to be minimised while ensuring that reputable employers are enabled to recruit trained and experienced crew members.

“Approvals under the scheme are granted by the Department of Justice.

“The role of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is to maintain the Central Depository of contracts and supporting documentation submitted under the Scheme.”

The Department of Agriculture said that Minister Charlie McConalogue has spoken recently with Minister of State at the Department of Justice James Browne and Minister of State for Business, Employment and Retail Damien English.

“The Department will participate to any review deemed necessary in order to provide further support for non-EEA workers in the fishing industry. A meeting of officials from the three Departments is planned for further discussion in relation to the scheme.”

The Department of Transport’s statement was received by The Journal and added to the article on 20 October 2021.

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