Racist insults, verbal abuse, long working hours with few breaks and pay below the legal minimum wage are “common workplace experiences” of migrant workers in the Irish fishing sector, says a new study.
The report, conducted by Maynooth University’s Department of Law, comes four months after a damning assessment by the US state department over Ireland’s failure to combat human trafficking, which stated that undocumented workers on Irish vessels are vulnerable to trafficking and forced labour.
The study features in-depth interviews with 24 male migrant workers in the Irish fishing industry, some of whom are undocumented. More than two-thirds said they could work up to 20 hours a day, with allegations of wages being withheld, being forced to live on the boat without enough food, and working under threat of dismissal and deportation from Ireland. More than half of the participants interviewed said that they had been subjected to verbal and racial abuse.
Only one-third of workers said that they felt safe on the fishing vessels. Others reported a range of injuries, including broken bones, back problems and finger injuries or loss. While a small number of injured workers were “looked after”, the report says, the remainder appeared not to receive sick pay.
In 2016, after a Guardian investigation that uncovered allegations of exploitation of workers from Asia and Africa onboard Irish trawlers, the Irish government set up a taskforce to investigate the treatment of migrant workers on trawlers, which resulted in the creation of an “atypical working scheme” (AWS) for non-EEA workers in the fishing fleet.
Under the scheme, workers are contracted to an individual employer and have the right to a safe working environment, regular breaks and rest periods, annual leave and payment of the legal minimum wage. If the contract is breached by either party, the permit should be revoked.
But this latest study, funded by the International Transport Workers’ Federation, reveals a gap between the terms and conditions of the AWS contract and the reality of how workers are treated at sea. The AWS “can be used by employers as a means to threaten and exploit workers”, the report says, adding that the level of control exerted by employers “makes it impossible for migrant workers to engage meaningfully with inspections”. One worker told the researchers that the contract was “for show”. “Long hours, long hours, sometimes one week, no sleep, just working,” said another.
Figures released in July by Ireland’s Department of Justice show that 227 fishers on Irish boats hold AWS permits, including workers from the Philippines, Egypt, Ghana and Indonesia. The department said it had not been made aware of any confirmed breaches of contract under the AWS. Five workers interviewed for the report said that they were satisfied with their working situation, but that their immigration status and lack of freedom to change employer or sector was a key challenge.
According to the Irish labour inspectorate, since the AWS was introduced in 2016, there have been 323 breaches of employment law on Irish boats. Fewer than half of those interviewed for this study recalled boats being inspected by the authorities for compliance with labour law. One worker told the researchers that that he had reported bad treatment to inspectors, but “they did nothing”.
Dr Cliodhna Murphy, one of the report’s authors, told the Guardian that the permit scheme was not fit for purpose. “I think that the atypical scheme needs to be thoroughly reviewed and overhauled – if it is retained at all,” she said. In 2019, four UN special rapporteurs warned the Irish government that their permit scheme breached international human rights law.
The report calls on Irish authorities to grant work permits for the sector, and remove the linkage between the permit holder and employer. Other recommendations include allowing undocumented migrant fishers to have access to the Department of Justice’s regularisation scheme, and overhauling the approach of the labour and marine inspectorate to ensure they have access to trained interpreters, and can speak directly to migrant workers away from their employers during inspections.
John Ward, chief of the Irish Fish Producers Organisation, a body representing owners of commercial sea-fishing vessels, said that the industry supports the call for migrant non-EEA workers to be regularised. “The industry never condones any alleged ill-treatment at any time of these workers. The ITF has always had a very obvious agenda as far as the fishing industry is concerned and they have commissioned this report.”
In a statement emailed to the Guardian, a spokesperson for the Department of Justice said that ministers have agreed to carry out a review of the atypical working scheme.