28 Sept 2022

High Court told migrant fishermen treated like modern slaves

High Court told migrant fishermen treated like modern slaves

Migrant fisherman working on Irish registered trawlers claim they were exploited, underpaid, racial abused, worked to exhaustion and in some cases have been assaulted to a degree that their working conditions are akin to "modern slavery," the High Court has heard.

The court also heard that the investigations carried out by migrant's rights groups have revealed that on average fishermen from non-EEA countries worked an average of approximately 116 hours per week, yet were only paid an average of €2.83 per hour.   

Arising out of complaints made by fishermen, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) has brought proceedings against the State over a work permit scheme it claims is allowing the fishermen to be exploited. 

The ITF says there are over a dozen cases of potential human trafficking arising from the scheme that are the subject of criminal investigations. 

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has been joined to the case as an 'Amicus Curiae' or friend to the court. Its counsel Feichin McDonagh SC for the Commission told the court on Thursday that the case raised "important human rights issues."

In a preliminary application, the Federation which represents unions and transport workers all over the world wants injunctions including one preventing any work permits under a scheme known as Atypical Working Scheme for Non-EEA Crew in the Irish fishing fleet by the State be granted or renewed. 

The scheme was introduced by the Government in 2016 following the exploitation of workers within the Irish fishing industry exposed in a British newspaper report.

The ITF claims the scheme does not protect workers from exploitation and human trafficking and wants the injunction to be kept in place until it's case against the scheme has been decided.

The action is against the Minister for Justice and Equality, Ireland and the Attorney General. Represented by Sara Moorhead SC, it has opposed the application for an injunction on grounds including that the ITF does not have the locus standi or legal standing to bring the action. 

Counsel said that ITF's claims concerning the scheme were hotly contested. While emotive language was being used in court it was not the case that Minister or the State was being complicit in any alleged trafficking or exploitation of persons. 

Opening the case, Matthias Kelly SC with Michael Lynn SC for the ITF described the situation that several of the men the IFT had dealt with was akin to "modern human slavery".

The scheme in the way it is framed had the unintended effect of not protecting workers who come from mainly African and Asian countries. 

Mr Lynn said that the action was urgent as the ITF wanted to ensure no more workers ended up being exploited, adding that there is a positive obligation on the State to prevent human trafficking.  

Mr Kelly said the ITF and many other bodies, ranging from the Irish based groups that deal with migrants to EU bodies and the US State Department, have raised concerns about the effect the scheme has on human trafficking and the exploitation of workers.  

Counsel said that a report by the Irish Migrant Centre had revealed that exploitation of non-EEA fishermen in the Irish fleet was "widespread." These men council said were working an average of 116.9 hours a week and yet only received an average hourly wage of €2.83.  

Counsel read sworn statements given by a number of the fishermen who claim they have been exploited while working in Ireland. 

They were given contracts by fishing boat owners which allow them to work legally in Irish fishing fleet. However, the men said they were paid well below the minimum wage, which they are legally entitled to. 

The men said they were let go from the vessels despite being owed from between €7,000 to €45,000 for hours they worked and were paid far less than Irish or EU fishermen.

The men gave details of the physical and racial abuse they endured while working. They said boats they worked on were often under crewed, and expressed concerns at the level of health and safety standards. 

One said the vessel he worked didn't have a fully functioning radar, and there were several near misses at sea. They all complained of working long hours, up to 20 hours a day at sea, and complained of exhaustion. 

They said that they were often asked to sign documents that contained false information, hide fish that exceeded the boat's fishing quotas and given more dangerous work at sea than their EU crewmates.

If they complained, they were threatened with deportation, and in one case one of the men says he was assaulted. 

One man said that one of his skippers had taken drugs while at sea including cannabis, cocaine and heroin.

The injunction application, which is before Mr Justice Tony O'Connor, continues.

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