Lack of papers for fishermen rescued off Cork coast under investigation

‘State has failed’ two Egyptian workers hired without work permits, says advocate body

Three separate investigations are under way into how two fishermen, who were dramatically rescued from a fishing vessel last month, had no permits to work on board.

Mohamed Elbahlawan (40) and Elhag Abdrabo (32), both Egyptian, were among seven crew airlifted from the FV Ellie Adhamh on March 27th, off the Cork coast as it battled "horrendous" sea conditions and 7m (22ft) waves over two days.

The fact that they had no work permits – which the boat owner, R&E Fish Ltd, should have applied for – means they have no access to social welfare supports. They are stranded, unable to work and unable to afford to go home. Mr Abdrabo is currently staying with family in Tralee, Co Kerry. Mr Elbahlawan is renting accommodation in Co Cork.

The International Transport Federation (ITF), which advocates on behalf of migrant fishermen, said non-compliance with the Atypical Working Scheme (AWS) for sea fishers, which was introduced in 2016 to protect fishers from outside the European Economic Area, was "endemic" in the fishing industry.


“Weak enforcement by the State is facilitating serious abuses,” it said.

The Egyptian men's circumstances are under investigation by the Garda National Immigration Bureau, the Garda National Protective Services Bureau – whose remit includes investigating human trafficking – and the Marine Survey Office (MSO), which monitors compliance with maritime health and safety. The Marine Casualty Investigation Board is investigating the incident.

Before a non-EEA fisher can come to Ireland to take up work, the boat owner must engage an Irish-based solicitor to draw up a 12-month contract ensuring payment of at least the minimum wage, health insurance and an undertaking that when employment is terminated the employer will cover the fisherman's costs to return home.

This contract must be lodged with the central depository unit in the Department of Agriculture and sent to the fisher in his own country, in English and his own language, while the employer applies to the Department of Justice for an AWS permit.

Correspondence between the Departments of Justice and of Agriculture, and the ITF, seen by The Irish Times, confirms no contracts were lodged with the central depository, nor any permits issued under the AWS, for either Mr Abdrabo or Mr Elbahlawan.

The Department of Justice said: “The Atypical Working Scheme Unit has no record of any application for permission under the scheme made by or on behalf of any of the individuals named in your correspondence.”

The Department of Agriculture said: “Our records indicate that no submissions have been received by the central depository section regarding the… named individuals.”

No landing stamp

Neither of the men's passports, seen by The Irish Times, shows a visa or "landing stamp". Mr Elbahlawan, however, has a "Stamp 1" from Bantry Garda station, dated August 20th, 2020, and valid for one year. He says he was brought to the station by his employers.

A senior source in the Department of Justice said a Stamp 1 should not have been issued to Mr Elbahlawan without a work permit. “The gardaí would have to explain that,” he said.

Mr Elbahlawan and Mr Abdrabo were the only non-EEA fishers, along with four Polish fishers and an Irish skipper, when the crew was lifted from the vessel by Irish Coast Guard helicopter 117, at about 7 pm on Saturday, March 27th. The 25m trawler sank hours later.

Its engine had lost power early the previous morning 130km off Bull Rock in west Co Cork. A rescue operation ensued involving a coast guard tugboat, which was unable to tow it in 80km winds; the Irish Navy; and eventually Rescue 117.

Both had feared for their lives during the ordeal. “I was thinking about my kids and my family,” said Mr Elbahlawan. “When the helicopter came I was very happy I would not die.”

“I was not able even to think,” said Mr Abdrabo. “When the waves were so high I did not think I would live. My mum, my sister and brother – I was thinking of them for sure.”

They were taken to Cork Airport and checked over by HSE paramedics. Mr Elbahlawan was taken to hospital with suspected concussion and released a few hours later. Both returned that night to Castletownbere, Co Cork, where the vessel had been based.

Through industry contacts Mr Elbahlawan and Mr Abdrabo got in touch with the ITF, which is advocating on their behalf.

Speaking through an interpreter, they said they experienced a harsh regime on the trawler – working up to 20 hours a day casting nets, pulling them in six hours later, and emptying them, recasting them before spending three to four hours sorting and freezing prawns, with a short break before starting the process again.

Both said they encountered a repeated issue of being paid up to three months late and being paid less than Polish colleagues. When asked why, Mr Elbahlawan, who has worked on fishing boats out of Clogher Head, Co Louth, and Howth, Co Dublin, said: "Because they are European."

‘Weak enforcement’

The 2003 Organisation of Working Time (Workers on Board Sea-Going Fishing Vessels) regulations and Atypical Working Scheme for sea fishers says “maximum hours of work shall not exceed 14 hours in any 24-hour period”.

Michael O’Brien, fisheries campaign lead for the ITF in Ireland, said the two fishermen had suffered “serious abuses”. The ITF was seeking that they be “taken into the care of the State” while the three investigations proceed. “The State has failed them by its weak enforcement of the AWS.”

He described the case as “emblematic of persistent problems across the fishing sector”, and added: “Five years on from the introduction of the atypical scheme, which was intended to clean up the sector, we are down now to a mere 189 live permits spanning some 160 eligible vessels. How are these boats being crewed today?

“The responsible authorities need to demonstrate some curiosity here. It took sinking and resultant destitution of these undocumented fishers who came to the ITF to highlight a wider problem.”

He was concerned Mr Elbahlawan had a Stamp 1 despite having no permit. He had seen this before and it could “serve to deflect any detection by officers from the navy, MSO or workplace relations commission… giving them the wrong impression that an AWS permit has been granted”.

Queries were put to Co Wexford-based R&E Fish, a family business managed by Dinah Busher, about the Egyptians' lack of work permits, and their testimony of long working hours, underpayment and late payment of wages, and being paid less than European colleagues.

Unanswered questions

A response was issued on its behalf by Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation. None of the questions was answered.

The organisation said the Ellie Adhamh was "in full compliance with all requirements of the Marine Survey Office Code of Practice for Irish Fishing Vessels. This code of practice encompasses a vessel's safety, crew safety, crew welfare, crew agreement to provide a safe, harmonious environment on board the vessel, record keeping of mandatory drills, records of rest, agreed remuneration, repatriation and all other areas governed by highly specific regulations implementing the IMO Convention."

“All crew members, including the skipper on board, were furnished with and were legally required to sign the crew agreement, which is a mandatory requirement for fishermen to read, comprehend, complete and have witnessed and signed by all parties.

“Neither R&E Fish nor the Irish South and West have any knowledge or record of any complaint made or of any dispute or issue arising relating to crew welfare or remuneration on board the MFV Ellie Adhamh. We strongly refute the allegations and assertions made by Egyptian crewmen to you about Dinah Busher and R&E Fish Limited.”

A Garda spokeswoman said: “We are aware of this situation. Investigations are ongoing, and due to this fact we are not in a position to comment.”

Asked how he feels, Mr Abdrabo said: “Tired. No job, no support, no money, no status. I need documents if possible and support, until I can support myself.”

Mr Elbahlawan said he felt "very bad", that he was "not sleeping and always thinking about it [the sinking]". Asked why he came to Ireland to work as a fisherman, he said it was still better than in Egypt. "It's not bad treatment in Egypt, but it's scary because if you fish illegally in Libya and Tunisia there are boats with guns."

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times