New anti-slavery rules for fishing

The Workplace Relations Commission is to play an increased role in protecting migrant fishermen here from modern-day slavery.

The Government and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) have agreed enhanced protections for the fishermen to bolster the Atypical Worker permit scheme. That scheme, introduced in 2015, was supposed to ensure that workers covered by it could no longer be underpaid, overworked, or otherwise exploited by boat-owners.

However, to date, the scheme has, according to the ITF, actually been used to exploit fishermen (mainly African and Asian) by holding the fear of deportation over them, as permits are controlled by boat-owners.

The ITF, armed with testimony from dozens of fishermen and the fact that gardaí have identified 26 suspected victims of trafficking in the industry, took the Government to court over its alleged failure to monitor the scheme and its administration. The sides went into mediation for two days in early April and have secured the following improvements:

  • Fishermen can now transfer more easily to another vessel, without the risk of deportation hanging over them, as the original boat-owner will not be able to cancel their visa;
  • The boat-owner will no longer be able to deduct the cost of the permit (€1,000) from the fisherman’s wages;
  • The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) will now board vessels and, if it finds any issues in relation to the entitlements or welfare of the crew, it will report them to the Marine Survey Office (MSO) or, if needs be, the gardaí;
  • All permit documents will have to be supplied to the worker in English and their own language. Furthermore, the boat-owner will now have to give the worker a copy of his/her rest hours, along with their payslip;
  • In line with the fishermen’s payment schedule, a special section will be added to the WRC’s website, relating directly to migrant fishermen and their rights;
  • Ireland will ratify EU Directive 2017-159, which sets minimum requirements around manning of vessels, working hours, and rest periods.

The ITF welcomed the new powers for the WRC. It was concerned the MSO, which had responsibility for enforcement of maximum hours, rest periods, and safety onboard the fishing vessels, was not getting to the heart of any exploitation, as its surveys were by appointment, not unannounced, and it had initiated fewer than 10 prosecutions, since the atypical worker scheme came into effect in 2015. WRC inspections are unannounced.

“The ball is in the WRC’s court now,” said, Ken Fleming ITF co-ordinator for Britain and Ireland.

“I am very pleased at the mediation outcome. However, in February 2016, when this scheme was introduced, I expressed doubt that the industry would comply. It did not. I continue to doubt whether the industry is capable, on its own, to step up and move away from the scandals that have followed it over a long period.

“It is down to regulation enforcement. What’s different is the extended involvement of the WRC, which can now inspect issues that were only the property of the maritime survey office.

“Rest records, payslips must be furnished to the employee, as and when they are paid. This was one of the big loopholes used, as hours of work were wrongly averaged over a 12-month period. This made it impossible to determine the correct working time on vessels.”

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