The Government has been told it will face the initiation of proceedings within 21 days if it does not put a pause on the atypical permit scheme for non-EU fishermen.
A legal team for the International Transport Workers Federation has written to Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan telling him it has identified 12 potential trafficking victims to gardaí who were all participants in the scheme.
“Seven of these men have now been positively identified as suspected victims of trafficking in human beings with five referrals still under investigation by the Garda National Protective Services Bureau,” the ITF legal team has told Mr Flanagan.
The workers federation said that the number of potential victims identified equates to one in 10 of the permits issued over the course of 18 months.
The general secretary of the federation, Stephen Cotton, sent letters to Mr Flanagan’s office in March and in April asking him to put an immediate moratorium on the grant or renewal of permissions under the scheme pending a review of its terms, but got no satisfaction.
In the legal letter sent yesterday, the minister was told that if he does not introduce the moratorium within 21 days, legal proceedings will be initiated in the High Court seeking orders for the moratorium.
In the correspondence the minister is told that the atypical working scheme, rather than achieving its stated intention of protecting the rights and terms and conditions of non-EU fishermen, has actually increased their vulnerability to exploitation by giving their employers the power to cancel their permission to reside and work in the State at will.
The legal team also assert that the labour rules designed to protect workers on seagoing fishing vessels are not properly enforced and that employers operate with “complete impunity”.
“Notwithstanding that there is now clear, unambiguous evidence that the Atypical Working Scheme is not fit for purpose, it remains in operation today,” Mr Flanagan is told.
The case of four Ghanaian fishermen who were identified as recently as April by GNIB as suspected victims of human trafficking is also detailed. They are not included in the 12 mentioned by the legal team as the ITF claims they were allegedly smuggled in from the North and so were not on the permit scheme.
“With respect, it is unacceptable that the minister’s department should continue to grant and renew permissions under the Atypical Working Scheme while, at the very same time, it receives information from senior officers of GNIB that there are reasonable grounds to believe that participants in the scheme have been subjected to offences under the Criminal Law (Human Trafficking) Act 2008.”
Ken Fleming, ITF inspector for the UK and Ireland, who has represented the rights of migrant fishermen here for more than a decade said the federation does not want the scheme to be replaced as it finally gives those it represents proper terms and conditions. What he wants is for the scheme to be properly enforced.
He said his organisation had tried every industrial relations mechanism to resolve the issue, and it was now being forced to go down the legal route as there was no other way to protect the men.
When asked about the correspondence, the Department of Justice said the Government “abhors any abuse of proper employment conditions, in any circumstance” but it added that the relevant authorities were the Workplace Relations Commission and the Marine Survey Office for abuses of the employment conditions of non-EU nationals in the fishing industry.
It outlined how the scheme has operated since February 2016 adding: “The Department of Justice and Equality does not comment with third parties on any correspondence it receives.
“Any changes to the scheme would be a matter for the relevant departments with the approval of Government.”