The Government's system of permits for migrant fishing workers is "legitimising slavery", a trade union official told a meeting in Liberty Hall, Dublin on Monday. Up to 70 fishermen, mainly Egyptian, heard International Transport Workers' Federation (ITF) co-ordinator Ken Fleming demand immediate action to halt abuse and exploitation within the Irish industry.
Egyptian embassy representative Hatem Elsisi also called on the Government to provide a safe and legal system for Egyptian crew to work on Irish vessels.
“These are very skilled men, mainly from the Alexandria area, who want to work here but they need a system that protects them and gives them an opportunity to apply for residence which will give them rights,” Mr Elsisi said.
Up to 2,000 Egyptians may be working on vessels based at ports north and south of the Border, Mr Elsisi said.
The embassy has received reports of injury and hardship, and was aware of several cases where men who sustained injury could not return home to their families while legal cases were in train.
Instances where many migrant crew were underpaid and overworked were outlined at the meeting, which is the second hosted by the ITF.
Mohamad Abbasy, who took up a berth on a vessel in Union Hall, Co Cork, 18 months ago, said he lost his job last September and his visa was cancelled after he had secured a permit.
‘For slaves, not humans’
“This permit system is for slaves, not humans,when you work 150 hours a week and are paid for just 39 hours,” he said.
The permit system for migrant workers was initiated by the then minister for marine Simon Coveney last year in the wake of a year-long investigation by the Guardian newspaper on exploitation within the Irish fishing industry.
Industry organisations said they had lobbied for such a system to meet crew shortages within the industry. However, the system had failed, Mr Fleming said. “Boat owners have used the scheme to move from paying crews on a share system to paying the minimum wage, with crew working over 100 hours for €350 a week,” Mr Fleming said.
The permit system closed in June 2016, but at least 20 permits had since been issued “illegally”, facilitated by the Department of Justice, Mr Fleming claimed.
Only one of the fishermen at the meeting said he held a permit issued before June last year, while two said they held permits issued in December 2016.
Mr Fleming said he was aware of the risks many of the men took to attend the meeting, and issued an information leaflet in Arabic relating to steps to take if contacted by the Garda National Immigration Bureau.
The ITF plans to highlight the situation at the European Parliament later this month and is holding a meeting with the Workplace Relations Commission chairman.
Last October, the WRC, Garda, Naval Service and State agencies held joint inspections of 41 fishing vessels in Castletownbere, Co Cork, and Howth, Co Dublin. The Garda said a "relatively small number of suspected breaches were found, all relating to the work permit scheme, employment law and immigration and tax offences".