More must be done to ally treatment of crew on Irish trawlers

Early last year, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and the Migrants Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) met the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Jobs, Enterprise, and Innovation to convey concerns about how some non-European Union crew members might be treated on Irish trawlers.

The committee was so concerned by what it heard about crews employed under the Atypical Worker Permission Scheme that, last September, it met representatives of the fishing sector and government departments.

That committee reported last November and, unsurprisingly, found that there is poor co-ordination in how these matters are policed.

It also found that watchdogs are under-manned and unable to offer assurances that might allay concerns about conditions, pay rates, working hours, freedom of movement, and even people trafficking.

The committee was so concerned that, last November, it recommended that the issuing of permits to non-EEA nationals be suspended.

It is hard to imagine that this proposal was lightly made. Its committee also found that the process of granting work permits could expose workers, as it found that, in theory, workers were free to move from one employer to another, but that this rarely happened.

The waters are further muddied by the fact that the majority of the crew on Irish-registered vessels are technically self-employed, so do not fall under the remit of the Workplace Relations Commission.

Even if they did, the WRC has warned it is unable to inspect more than 50% of the fleet in any given year.

The agency carried out 232 inspections, on 159 vessels, between April, 2016 and September, 2017 and found 198 contraventions, so it is not as if inspections are unnecessary.

The impression that the legislation has as many loopholes as there are holes in a net is confirmed by the fact that many vessels are excluded, as they are under 15m long. Of the 1,506 smaller, inshore boats, 1,287 are 12m or below.

The committee expressed concern at this exclusion, as any foreign worker in that fleet seems dangerously exposed.

The overall theme of that report — lots of laws, but little, if any, enforcement — is seen again in answers given to Dáil questions posed by Solidarity–People Before Profit TD, Mick Barry, about health-and-safety inspections.

Mr Barry was especially interested in inspections of vessels using non-EU migrant crew, documented or undocumented, since the scheme was established. Since then — February, 2016 — the HSA has carried out 73 inspections, just three each month.

This hardly qualifies as light-touch regulation, but the HSA has 10 inspectors to inspect fishing vessels and they must also inspect farms, construction sites, health services, and manufacturing enterprises. A knife at a gunfight, as it were.

This opaque legislation — even if you speak English — supervised by far too few officials, means we are culpable in any exploitation, even people-trafficking or, in a worst-case scenario, slavery.

This must be rectified, as the only people, a minority of trawler owners, who benefit, are criminals. If we ignore them, we allow them abuse some of the most vulnerable people in our world. Not in our name, surely.

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