Minister ‘concerned’ over claims about treatment of fishing workers

International Transport Federation alleges gardaí ‘not taking issue seriously’

Minister for Marine Simon Coveney has said he is very concerned" about allegations made by the Guardian about the treatment of workers on board Irish fishing vessels, particularly in relation to their safety.

Irish industry representatives have also said they “do not condone” any abuse of fishermen of any nationality, and have called on the Government to introduce a “long-awaited” regulated work permit system for the sector.

A project led by An Garda Síochána has been "established specifically to address concerns in relation to potential human trafficking in the maritime sector, including fishing", Mr Coveney said.

“This project aims to provide a comprehensive and multidisciplinary approach to the issue, involving a broad range of competent State agencies – including relevant marine, immigration and employment rights authorities – and civil society organisations,” he said.

His department and its agencies would “co-operate in any way with this inter-agency project”, and he added that any evidence “substantiating the allegations made today should be directed immediately to An Garda Síochána for further investigation”.

Irish Fish Producers’ Organisation (IFPO) chief executive Francis O’Donnell said his organisation “did not condone any ill-treatment or abuse of crew”, and called on the Government to regulate the sector to allow foreign nationals to be employed legally on board vessels.

“The reality is that we have had crew shortages since the economic boom, when it became more profitable for crew to work in the construction sector,” he said.

Due to the severe skills shortage, his organisation had made a number of efforts to ensure a work permit scheme was introduced for crew from non-European Economic Area states, he said. The IFPO wrote to Minister for Jobs Richard Bruton on the issue last month, he said, seeking an urgent meeting.

In the letter, the organisation said that its members were “finding it extremely difficult to get Irish nationals to become fishermen/women” and had a “shortage of skilled deck hands and engineers in the whitefish sector”.

"The long hours and bad weather conditions renders our industry an unattractive career option,"the letter states, adding that "we are fully aware of the mandatory requirements under regulation and the minimum annual remuneration that is required to be paid to those employed under a work permit system in Ireland (€27,500) per annum".

Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation chief executive Sean O’Donoghue said his group would not support any abuses, but he did not believe that the allegations related to any of his members.

“I cannot see any Irish fishermen being involved in human trafficking, but I would like to see if there is actual evidence of so-called abuses and I would eat my hat if this involved more than a small numbef of vessels,” Mr O’Donoghue said.

He said he would be concerned if safety was being compromised in any way as the industry had made strenuous efforts, working with Bord Iascaigh Mhara, to improve the safety culture.

However, International Transport Federation (IFT) co-ordinator Ken Fleming claimed that "90 per cent of fishing vessels are involved", and said that "communities, including the local gardai, are up to their neck in this".

He said he did not believe the industry supported a work permit scheme, as it would involve paying the minimum wage.

Mr Fleming also said he did not believe the Garda investigation was taking the issue seriously, and claimed it established in response to EU working time legislation. “I have been trying to raise this issue for the past ten years,”he said.

He called for an amnesty for all boat owners, and said that the various social partners should meet to agree on a proper work permit scheme.

“If the Government does not want to regulate the situation of foreign crew, it should ensure that these crew are taken off vessels and flown home in a humane manner, rather then leaving them open to further abuse,”Mr Fleming said.

* This article was amended on November 3rd, 2015. IFPO chief executive Francis O’Donnell was incorrectly named as Francis Ward.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times