Migrant fisherman working on Irish registered trawlers claim their working conditions are akin to "modern slavery", the High Court has heard.
The fishermen claim they have been exploited, underpaid, racially abused, worked to exhaustion and in some cases assaulted.
The court also heard that investigations by migrants rights groups have revealed that, on average, fishermen from non-EEA (European Economic Area) countries worked an average of 116 hours per week but are only paid an average of €2.83 per hour.
Arising out of complaints by fishermen, the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) has brought proceedings against the State over a work permit scheme which it claims is allowing the fishermen to be exploited.
The federation 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 and its counsel Feichin McDonagh SC said on Thursday the case raised "important human rights issues."
In a preliminary application, the Federation wants injunctions including preventing the granting or renewal by the State of any work permits under a scheme known as Atypical Working Scheme for Non-EEA Crew in the Irish Fishing Fleet.
The scheme was introduced by the Government in 2016 following 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 injunctions until it’s full case has been heard and decided.
The action is against the Minister for Justice and Equality, Ireland and the Attorney General.
Represented by Sara Moorhead SC, the State parties opposed an injunction on grounds including claims the ITF lacks legal standing to bring the action.
Ms Moorhead also said the federation’s claims concerning the scheme were hotly contested.
While “emotive” language was being used in court, it was not the case the Minister or the State were complicit in any alleged trafficking or exploitation of persons, she said.
Opening the case, Matthias Kelly SC, with Michael Lynn SC, for the ITF described the situation of several of the fishermen whom the federation had dealt as akin to “modern human slavery”.
The disputed scheme has the unintended effect of not protecting workers who come from mainly African and Asian countries, counsel said.
Mr Lynn said the matter was urgent as the ITF wanted to ensure no more workers ended up being exploited.
There is a positive obligation on the State to prevent human trafficking, he said.
Mr Kelly said the ITF and many other bodies ranging from Irish based groups dealing 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. A report by the Irish Migrant Rights Centre had revealed exploitation of non-EEA fishermen in the Irish fleet was “widespread”, he said. These men 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 from a number of fishermen alleging 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 but they were paid well below the minimum wage which they are legally entitled to, they claimed.
The men said they were let go from the vessels despite being owed between €7,000 and €45,000 for hours worked and were paid far less than Irish or EU fishermen.
The men said they were subject to physical and racial abuse while working.
They also said boats they worked on were often under crewed and they expressed concerns at the level of health and safety standards.
One said the vessel he worked on lacked a fully functioning radar and there were a number of 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 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 than their EU crewmates.
If they complained, they were threatened with deportation and one man said he was assaulted.
One man said one of his skippers had taken drugs while at sea including cannabis, cocaine and heroin.
The hearing continues before Mr Justice Tony O’Connor.