Of 35 referrals of alleged trafficking in the Irish fishing industry since 2017, six files were sent to the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP), with no prosecutions made to date. According to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), there has been “an across the board failure” by the justice system when it comes to trafficking of migrant fishers, as well as other labour abuses.
This issue first came to light in 2015, when The Guardian exposed the transit of fishers through Northern Ireland to work on vessels off Ireland as part of an investigation into the use of undocumented African and Asian migrants in the Irish fishing sector. Sleep deprivation, inhuman hours and low pay were revealed to be experienced by undocumented migrants working on prawn and whitefish trawlers operating from Ireland.
Following The Guardian’s investigation, the Irish Government formed an interdepartmental taskforce to tackle the problems. The Government introduced a new permit scheme to regularise the legal position of hundreds of migrant fishers in 2016. The Atypical Working Scheme (the AWS) was brought in following the media reports which exposed the exploitation of workers in the Irish fishing industry. It was intended to allow migrants to live in Ireland and work on certain types of vessels with the same rights as Irish workers. However, bodies such as the International Transport Workers Federation have identified a number of potential cases of human trafficking and claimed the AWS actually increased the fishers’ vulnerability to exploitation.
In 2019, four UN Special Rapporteurs in areas including human rights of migrants, racism, slavery and trafficking in persons raised concerns to the Irish Government about alleged exploitation, mistreatment and risks to people’s safety in relation to the permit scheme for non-EU fishermen here. The four rapporteurs wrote to the Irish Government through its Irish Permanent Mission in Geneva raising information they had received about the Atypical Working Scheme and allegations of trafficking in persons and severe forms of labour exploitation of migrant fishermen.
In 2020, The Trafficking in Persons Report published annually by the US State Department's Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking downgraded Ireland to a Tier 2 watch list. Nations are divided into three tiers based on their compliance with standards in the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. In 2022, the United States Trafficking in Persons (TIPs) report stated that Ireland was “increasing efforts” to tackle trafficking but noted that “systemic deficiencies in victim identification, referral and assistance persisted” – one of “several key areas” where “the government did not meet the minimum standards”.
Now, seven years after the transit of fishers through Northern Ireland to work on vessels off Ireland was exposed by The Guardian investigation, human trafficking victims continue to present in similar situations to authorities.
Last week, on 8 December 2022, Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Minister for Justice during a Dáil Éireann Debate what action is being taken by Government to combat the chronic deficiencies in victim identification and referral of human trafficking victims in the Irish fishing sector; and if she would make a statement on the matter. The Minister for Justice replied:
“I strongly refute the unfounded allegations of widespread human trafficking in the fishing industry. All allegations of human trafficking in Ireland are fully investigated by An Garda Síochána and files are submitted to the Director of Public Prosecutions where An Garda Síochána considers it appropriate to do so.”
However, a number of cases heard in the Workplace Relations Committee and reported in the media would paint a different picture. In September 2022, a migrant fisherman working on a prawn boat off the Dublin coast told the Workplace Relations Commission that he and two colleagues worked up to 17 hours a day at sea and were owed €140,000 in unpaid wages. Other allegations include fishermen being made to work up to 20-hour work days and the forging of mandatory employment records. In other cases, on occasions where an employee speaks up against their employer, they allegedly run the risk of losing their job, which in some cases can impact a fisher’s visa status.
There are green shoot signs that change is finally afoot. The Department of Justice announced on 11 October 2022 that the Atypical Working Scheme, which has been strongly criticised since its inception as making vulnerable workers even more vulnerable to exploitation, will be discontinued and that no applications will be processed under the scheme from 31 December 2022. However, NGOs, unions and vessel owner representatives are hesitant to celebrate just yet as this is not the first time that recommendations were made regarding the Atypical Working Scheme. The Migrant Rights Council Ireland, Maynooth University and the US-Trafficking in Persons reports have all been vocal about the scheme and the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Enterprise, Trade and Employment made 12 recommendations about the scheme in 2017.
There are currently four departments with shared responsibility for the fishing industry: Justice; Enterprise, Trade and Employment; Agriculture, Food and the Marine as well as Transport. In addition, the navy, WRC and MSO undertake inspections, with other agencies including BIM and the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority involved. Perhaps it is time for a unified approach in order to face up to the long-standing labour exploitation in the Irish fishing industry.