For more than a decade, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has sought to highlight issues of under-payment, exploitation and unsafe working practices in the fishing industry here, as well as a lack of joined-up thinking in the State’s response to the issue.
In particular, the ITF has sought measures to ensure sanctions are taken against boat owners here, as well as manning agents, who carry out the exploitation of workers from as far afield as the Philippines and Egypt.
Ken Fleming, ITF co-ordinator for Britain and Ireland and the man most prominent in highlighting exploitation, has often been critical of the lack of enforced regulation within the industry. He points out that, at present, Port State Control will investigate whether the boat is seaworthy and whether crew members have proper training.
However, it is the National Employment Rights Authority (NERA) which checks immigration status.
“The only people who are boarding vessels routinely, who have a huge remit, is Port State Control,” says Mr Fleming. “NERA do not board vessels regularly, because, they have told me, they don’t have the manpower. They have to look after every industry in the country.”
Mr Fleming believes it has long passed time that the gardaí were allowed to play a more hands-on role through the Garda National Immigration Bureau. He said GNIB should carry out a root-and-branch investigation of the industry, with vessels being boarded and the legality, workplace conditions and remuneration of those on board put under scrutiny.
Furthermore, he wants tough penalties for the owners of boats where discrepancies are found. He points to a case, highlighted in this week’s Guardian investigation, where a prawn trawler owner who “pleaded guilty to taking an Egyptian migrant crew member fishing when he had no safety training”, but was not convicted ”because he was providing employment and had a clean record”.
Instead that boat owner was ordered to pay €1,000 to a local charity. In another case, a boat owner was ordered to pay €500 after he violently assaulted a State safety inspector.
One way of addressing the mistreatment of non-EU nationals in the industry — which has been alluded to by a number of sides — is a work permit system.
Francis O’Donnell, chief executive of the Irish Fish Producers Organisation, has said he has asked Jobs Minister Richard Bruton about the possibility of introducing such a system. He suggested there could be an initial allocation of 500 permits, with workers paid at least the minimum wage and boat owners given the discretion to offer more.
However, Mr Bruton appeared to shoot that idea down, saying the majority of the workers involved were in a “catch-share arrangement” and so were contractors, not workers to whom permits could be given.
In any case, Mr Fleming said that when permits were raised in round-table discussions seven years ago, the fishing industry representatives left negotiations when it became clear “they would have to pay the minimum wage, have shore-based accommodation, hand back passports, and have the same rights as any other worker”.
So, without a permit, how did these workers get here and be in a position to work? Of the allegedly thousands of illegals working on boats, most will have entered Ireland through a loophole designed for merchant shipping. That allows non-EU seafarers to transit through Britain for up to 48 hours if they immediately move on to join vessels working in international waters.
However, instead of joining those vessels, fishermen will travel — or, in the case of trafficked seafarers, be brought — over the border from the north and placed on a fishing vessel.
Yesterday, Hugo Boyle of the Irish South and East Fish Producers Organisation told RTÉ Radio’sprogramme: “I am personally not aware of any illegality in the fishing industry as regards abuse and exploitation of foreign workers is concerned. The foreign workers we are aware of are all EU nationals.”
However, in 2008, this newspaper highlighted the cases of two Filipino men, Ace Esmeria and Rene Mesana. They were located by the ITF working for a Castletownbere fisherman who was paying them $553 (€435) a month. The men had a one-month transit visa to board a vessel in Britain. It was organised for them in association with Filipino crewing agency Supermanning, but after they travelled from Manila to Belfast through London, they were brought over the border to a small west Cork fishing village.
They said they were taken on by the boat owner, who put them up in an outdated caravan with a broken window and gave them about €50 a week for food. They had no entitlement to work in this jurisdiction, leaving them with no legal comeback for being badly paid. The two men would be picked up by the boat owner at 5am and brought to sea to work up to 13 hours a day.