Migrant fishing crews face exploitation and abuse, report finds

Migrant Rights Centre Ireland survey says some foreign workers are ‘severely underpaid’

Steve Conneely of the Maria Magdalena III fishing vessel, with Ernest Okutu. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Steve Conneely of the Maria Magdalena III fishing vessel, with Ernest Okutu. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy


Migrant crew members on Irish fishing vessels are subject to discrimination, exploitation, verbal and physical abuse and “severe underpayment”, according to the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI).

Research published on Monday by the MRCI draws on interviews with 30 non-European Economic Area migrant crew, a majority of whom work more than 100 hours a week with average pay of €2.82 an hour, it says.

It cites a Government estimate of some 500 migrant crew working in the sector, although the International Transport Workers’ Federation believes it to be higher.

One in four of the 30 interviewed had experienced “verbal or physical abuse”, one in five said they had experienced racism and discrimination, while 40 per cent said they did not feel safe at work, the report says.

The majority of those interviewed by the MRCI are between 30 and 45 and from the Philippines and Egypt, with 85.7 per cent trained or holding a relevant qualification, and 40 per cent having received safety training.

The report says that a minority of crew interviewed were given appropriate rest breaks and days off. Length of trips at sea varies from five to 14 days, and many of the crew worked two to three trips back-to-back.

The report says that a scheme for migrant crew introduced by the Government in 2016 after a Guardian newspaper report in 2015 on exploitation within the fishing industry had “compounded” problems.

‘Significant barriers’

The report says there were a number of “significant barriers” for workers in a scheme which effectively tied crew to their employer.

The report called on Minister for Business Heather Humphreys to promote “specific regulation” in the sector.

It says that one body – the Marine Survey Office – should have responsibility for co-ordination of compliance, and it says that the “a-typical” scheme should be replaced with a system that ensures equal pay and free movement between employers.

“Ireland cannot be proud of the food we produce unless we respect the people who produce it,” MRCI director Edel McGinley says.

Dr Peter Tyndall, chairman of the National Fishermen’s Development Group (NFDG), said he had “no doubt” that some foreign-national crew may occasionally not have been happy with their conditions but “this applies equally to national crew”.

“It can be a demanding occupation and crew members sometimes learn through experience that they are not cut out for a career at sea. Similar situations occur in other physically demanding sectors of the economy such as agriculture, the horse industry and forestry, and in modern Ireland it has become increasingly difficult to attract new entrants into certain areas of employment.

“During my time as a fishing gear technologist with Bord Iascaigh Mhara I would have been to sea on a large number of boats all around the coast normally for a week at a time and you get to tell the atmosphere very quickly. Skippers and crew depend on each other and as a rule the atmosphere on most vessels is one of camaraderie, co-operation and friendship,” he said.

“The NFDG recently had a very constructive meeting with the Marine Survey Office at which skippers discovered that they caught themselves out when trying to comply with the complex and difficult bureaucratic rules of the scheme,” he said. “For instance, it was discovered that only two rest periods could be aggregated for each day and, as a consequence, rest periods which crew had taken were not considered,” he said.

A Ghanaian fisherman: ‘I am better off than my crewmen here’

Ernest Okutu (39) says he has not experienced the sort of exploitation which the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland report documents.

“We work together, we depend on each other for our safety,” says Okutu, a father of three young children from Ghana.

Since he was recruited by Rossaveal skipper Steve Conneely of the Maria Magdalena III, Okutu has sent money home to his wife, Elizabeth. He estimates that the couple will be able to build a house with direct labour within three years.

“So I am better off than my crewmen here, who would have to save up so much more for a deposit for a mortgage,” he says.

Okutu was employed through an agent in Ghana, and there was no work permit scheme in place here when he arrived first. He secured a permit in 2016 which his skipper renews every year.

“When I am not fishing, I sleep or I talk to my wife on WhatsApp on the boat, or I watch sport on television,” he says. “My only problem on board is when Manchester United is playing Chelsea, because I support Chelsea and my skipper is a United fan . . .”

The crewmen interviewed by the MRCI are not identified, for their protection, but one case study cites a 21-year-old west African named Sameer. His travel was arranged on a 48-hour transit visa through Belfast and he was assigned to a vessel in Co Cork.

He was on the vessel continuously for four months, he says, and had money deducted from his salary for food when ashore.

He says the vessel owner complained that he wasn’t “fast enough”, and threatened to throw him overboard or send him back home. He received no payslips and described how “sometimes I can’t take care of myself” as “I am so tired”.