The rate of workplace injuries among migrant fishermen is “excessively high” while conditions to which they are exposed are “inhumane and degrading”, a solicitor working alongside the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) has said.
Rhea Bohan, solicitor at Cathal N Young, is representing 15 migrant fishermen in change of visa status applications filed with the Department of Justice.
Speaking at a conference organised by the ITF on Friday, Ms Bohan said she has made several representations to Minister for Justice Helen McEntee to change the atypical working scheme (AWS) to “allow them to escape these conditions and to find work in alternative sectors”.
She said migrant fishermen were “regularly threatened” by boat owners that if they do not comply with the conditions their immigration status would be affected.
A recent study from Maynooth University warned that the atypical working scheme, which was introduced in 2016 to protect non-European Economic Area workers in the fishing industry, and under which the worker is contracted to an individual employer, "can be used by employers as a means to threaten and exploit workers".
Some 227 workers hold AWS permission including 111 fishermen from the Philippines, 48 from Egypt, 28 from Ghana and 28 from Indonesia, according to data released by the department in June.
Fear of losing visa
Michael O’Brien, campaign lead for the ITF, said migrant fishermen were working longer hours than was “safe or legal” but felt compelled to “endure unsafe practices on board” as they feared losing visa status if they were fired or out of work due to injury.
“The recurring testimony we received from migrant fishers, both those documented and undocumented, is of working 15 to 20 hours in a single stint, sometimes more. This can go on for days on end,” he said.
Mr O’Brien said the ITF had compiled a dossier of a sample of the injuries “that are all too common” in this sector.
“There are injuries often arising from the wear and tear caused by excessive hours, especially chronic back problems and then there are the serious injuries we’ve documented arising from on board accidents – most commonly to the hands and fingers, where fatigue can be a contributory factor,” he said.
The Government’s current review of the atypical work permit scheme, which is due to conclude this month, has the potential to improve safe working, he said.
“In our written submission last month, the ITF made the case for ending the annual renewable visa system that completely ties a fisher’s migrant status to a vessel owner,” he said.
“Fishers tell us that this creates such a power imbalance that they are unable to say no to the daily demands to work excessive and illegal hours, risking their safety.”