Migrant fisherman tells WRC he was underpaid €37,000 by Wexford trawler operator

Company rejects unfair dismissal allegation and account of hours worked

A migrant fisherman claims he was underpaid €37,000 by the operator of two Wexford-based trawlers while he worked up to 18 to 20 hours a day at sea hauling nets and processing prawns.

A migrant fisherman claims he was underpaid €37,000 by the operator of two Wexford-based trawlers while he worked up to 18 to 20 hours a day at sea hauling nets and processing prawns.

 

A migrant fisherman claims he was underpaid €37,000 by the operator of two Wexford-based trawlers while he worked up to 18 to 20 hours a day at sea hauling nets and processing prawns.

Habib Kannis (41), a father-of-two with an address in Phibsboro, Dublin 7, but who is originally from Egypt, worked on the vessels Verlaine and Ocean Harvester II between 2017 and 2020.

He has taken complaints against OF Fishing Ltd of Kilmore Quay, Co Wexford alleging unfair dismissal along with a claim for wages.

The company did not appear for the hearing on Wednesday but wrote to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) denying unfairly dismissing Mr Kannis and saying he had resigned, and rejecting the suggestion that its crews worked such hours.

Catch

Mr Kannis was represented by Michael O’Brien, fisheries campaign lead with the International Transport Workers’ Federation, who said his client was first taken on by the vessel owner as an undocumented “share fisherman”, paid a split of the market value of the catch.

Mr Kannis was first employed on a 12-month contract starting in May 2018, one of the requirements brought in under the Atypical Work Permit Scheme for non-EEA migrant fishing workers, the hearing was told, with his last such contract signed in April 2020.

He said his client ought to have been paid at least the minimum wage while on these contracts and paid 39 hours a week under the terms of the Department of Justice scheme.

On the basis of data obtained from the Naval Service and his client’s account of his work, he submitted Mr Kannis had been underpaid by €18,626 in 2018 and €18,883 in 2019, with an overpayment of €314 in 2020 when he went home to care for his mother.

The total estimated shortfall, Mr O’Brien said, was €37,196.

In his evidence, Mr Kannis described an alleged row he had with the skipper while out at sea over taking time while at sea to pray during a period of religious observance.

“I’m working for 18 hours straight – he wants to take the six hours as well. I was just late five minutes and he doesn’t want me to do my prayers,” he said.

“Since then, he was treating me different and really badly then,” he added.

Quarters

Mr O’Brien told the hearing that many Irish vessels had converted their crew quarters amidships to use the space for processing and refrigerating the catch and they were now “inhospitable” to work on.

A prawn boat such as the ones Mr Kannis worked on would haul in a net with between 500kg and a metric tonne of prawns multiple times a day, he said.

These had to be cleaned, tailed and graded at sea alongside hauling and maintaining the nets, he said – leading to working days of between 18 and 20 hours at the fishing grounds.

Mr Kannis said the skipper “never gave [his client]” the monthly form required by the Department of Justice work permit scheme recording his hours of work.

“It’s a statutory obligation,” Mr O’Brien said.

Mr O’Brien said he sought these records in a GDPR request to the company but received none back, adding that the company could have submitted them to the adjudicator but had not done so.

“We call them ‘Dolly Parton’ sheets because they purport to show that fishers work nine to five,” Mr O’Brien said, adding: “The vessel owners are on unsafe ground because they know we can pick [these records] apart.”

Mr O’Brien said his client went home to Egypt to care for his mother for the last six months of 2020 and made contact with the vessel owner again in December, when he had several months left on his contract. He indicated he was preparing to travel back to Ireland, Mr O’Brien said.

“He’s available to work. He’s basically being fobbed off… even though the atypical work scheme requires pay in off periods,” he told the hearing.

Mr O’Brien said if Mr Kallis had resigned as the company had suggested, it should have written to the Department of Justice to state that the employment relationship had ended.

Status

“They de facto dismissed him but this wasn’t communicated to him,” he said.

“They weren’t straight with him and if they had been straight with him he could have used that time to contact other vessel owners and preserve his [immigration] status,” Mr O’Brien said, adding that the fisheries work permit scheme operates had created an unequal power dynamic.

“The power the vessel owner has is to simply write to the Department of Justice and the person becomes undocumented,” Mr O’Brien said.

The adjudicating officer, Valerie Murtagh, closed the hearing to consider her decision.