Irish trade unionist honoured with the Spirit of Mother Jones

Ken Fleming challenged the official silence on exploitation of seafarers

A Dublin trade unionist has been honoured for his campaigning work against the exploitation of seafarers and migrant fishermen in Ireland and Britain by being awarded this year's Spirit of Mother Jones Award – established to commemorate the Irish-American labour activist.

Ken Fleming, an inspector with the International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) on secondment from SIPTU, has been an outspoken critic for over a decade of those in the Irish fishing industry who exploit foreign fishermen and other seafarers.

According to Jim Nolan of the Spirit of Mother Jones Committee, Mr Fleming has helped recoup millions of euro in unpaid wages for foreign seafarers in Irish ports while he has also ensured crews are repatriated home after vessels have been detained in Irish ports.

More recently, Mr Fleming has been engaged in an international campaign to ensure decent working conditions, employment rights, proper wages and legal protection to the migrant fishers who work in the Irish and the UK fishing fleets, he said.


He has also called for a major overhaul of the Irish fishing industry, claiming in a submission to an Oireachtas Committee that the current regulatory permit scheme for migrant fishers has not worked and instead has led to legalised slavery for many hundreds of migrant fishers.

“Ken Fleming has been willing to challenge the official silence on the blatant exploitation of many seafarers and migrant fishers in ships operating under Flags of Convenience in Ireland and the UK and is a worthy winner of the Spirit of Mother Jones Award,” said Mr Nolan.

Mr Fleming had also sought to organise migrant fishermen and expose the exploitative working practices in sections of the marine and fishing industries and he has called on the relevant State agencies to enforce a recent permit system which would help to protect them against exploitation.

“He is a fearless, passionate and a determined defender of the workers who have been denied their rights and continually exposes and challenges a system which treats many of these seafarers and migrant fishermen as virtual slaves,” said Mr Nolan.

Mr Fleming said he was deeply honoured to be presented with the Spirit of Mother Jones Award but said that it was part of a team effort and he paid tribute to his ITF colleagues from the UK, Liam Wilson and Darren Proctor, who had faced down aggression with him in most ports in Ireland.

“I am deeply touched by the belief the Mother Jones Committee have shown in my work, by selecting me for this very special award. It has been a very long and hard road, but this award has electrified me,” said Mr Fleming.

“The knowledge that a fully independent group not only recognise the work we have done, but fully support the determination to stamp out the scandalous abuse of workers completely, is inspiring. This award represents the most satisfying moment of my career,” he said.

Previous winners of the Spiriit of Mother Jones Award include Margaret Aspinall and Sue Roberts of the Hillsborough Family Support Group, solicitor, Gareth Peirce, campaigner for the homeless, Fr Peter McVerry and General Secretary of the Durham Miners Association, the late Dave Hopper.

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times