A trawler owner who denies that migrant fisherman worked 20-hour days on his boat has said it was barely worth setting nets at night because prawns “don’t like the dark”.
Richard Brannigan, the owner and operator of the Howth-based prawn boat Nausicaa, was giving evidence on Monday to the Workplace Relations Commission in response to statutory complaints by three of his former crew.
Fishermen Khaled Elagamy, Mohamed Shokr Ghonim and Salem Elfeky brought complaints under the Payment of Wages Act, the National Minimum Wage Act and the Terms of Employment Information Act against Mr Brannigan.
Their trade union, the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), has argued that the statutory working time records for the vessel are inaccurate and that they they are collectively owed about €140,000 – having been underpaid for long working hours at sea over several years.
A solicitor for Mr Brannigan says Naval Service vessel-monitoring data has been obtained “unlawfully” by the trade union – and that commercial location data which the men’s representative has sought to introduce in evidence cannot be relied upon.
At the opening of Monday’s hearing, the tribunal was told that Mr Elfeky was away at sea and unable to attend to progress his claim. The trawler owner’s solicitor also conceded that Mr Elagamy was owed three days’ pay for public holidays in 2021.
However, Mr Brannigan denies the other breaches of employment law alleged by the complainants and maintains that all three of the men were properly paid.
Mr Elagamy previously told the tribunal that he and his colleagues worked up to 20 hours a day while the Nausicaa was trawling at its fishing grounds, averaging 17 hours a day for each day at sea, with work on shore besides that.
Giving evidence, Mr Brannigan said the Nausicaa was the smallest fishing vessel operating out of Howth harbour in Co Dublin at 19.5 metres and was limited in its range and fuel capacity. He said the trawler could only spend nine or ten days at sea, and could only manage a certain number of trawls per day.
“On the Porcupine [Bank], all going well . . . maximum three [trawls]. Anywhere else the max you’d do is four tows – usually three during the day with a long one at night,” he said, adding that it was not always economical.
“Prawns, they don’t like the dark. You’d always have a slack one in the morning. A lot of the time they wouldn’t be worth towing at night. A lot of the time they wouldn’t be working, towing at night,” Mr Brannigan said.
His evidence was that there was downtime for the crew between shots of the net and that it was “not possible” for his crew to be working the hours alleged by the complainants’ side. He said the daily hours for his crew on the fishing grounds was “10 hours, maximum 12 hours”, with two hours’ rest between shots of the nets.
“Mr Elagamy has given evidence that forms, weekly timesheets, were often produced to sign blank,” said the respondent’s solicitor, Ruairí Ó Catháin.
“But sure we were shown they weren’t though, NF, NF, NF [no fishing],” Mr Brannigan replied. “How can you get someone to sign a blank thing . . . I don’t know,” he said.
Mr Ó Catháin put it to him that it was Mr Elgamy’s evidence that had to do so to “keep his job”.
“Why did he, every year, come to renew his contract? You’d ask ‘are you happy to renew?’” Mr Brannigan said.
He said that at the time the Atypical Work Permit Scheme had been in force, he only had the option to offer one-year contracts and that the contract terms were dictated by the government. He added that he had not given consent to the government for data produced by the vessel-monitoring system installed on the Nausicaa to be used for “employment law matters”.
“[They’re] great lads, good lads, you know, no I’ve nothing against them at all,” he said of the complainants.
The trade union representative, ITF organiser Michael O’Brien, questioned the trawler owner on hours of work and rest sheets required under the Atypical Work Scheme.
“We’d do them during the week and Charlotte [Brannigan, Mr Brannigan’s sister] would get them printed. She’d print them off and get lads to sign them,” he said.
There was renewed legal argument on the admissibility of tracking data recorded by the Naval Service and from the trawler’s collision avoidance system.
Mr Ó Catháin said his client’s position remained that data released by the Naval Service in response to a Freedom of Information request by Mr O’Brien has been obtained unlawfully – and that commercial data was unreliable. He said the trade union would have to produce a witness who could swear to the accuracy of the data if the tribunal was to rely on it.
Mr O’Brien said he wanted to put “improbable work patterns” he said had been recorded in the timesheets produced by the vessel owner to him.
“Mid-voyage it purports, according to these worksheets, that whole days were taken off by Mr Elagamy,” he said.
He put a series of dates in 2021 to Mr Brannigan as examples when Mr Elagamy was said to have done no work at sea.
On October 2nd-3rd that year, the witness suggested: “We could have been dodging bad weather, I don’t know,” later adding: “We often dodge for four days, five days.”
After further dates were put to the witness, the adjudicating officer Pat Brady said: “Look, I have to say there is no better than insinuation that [Mr Elagamy] did not work. I would need to hear evidence from him that he did work on those dates.”
He said he would allow Mr Elagamy to give evidence on that point on the next available date, and adjourned the hearing.