Migrant fishermen report ongoing racial abuse, low pay and poor treatment

Employers using atypical working scheme to ‘threaten and exploit workers’, study finds

The study, conducted by Maynooth University’s law department, features interviews with 24 non-EEA male migrant workers in the Irish fishing industry. Photograph: Niall Duffy

More than half of non-European fishermen working on Irish vessels have reported being subjected to racist insults and verbal abuse, while a third say they feel unsafe on the ships where they work, a study to be published this week finds.

The report, conducted by Maynooth University’s law department, with funding from the International Transport Workers’ Federation, features interviews with 24 non-EEA (European Economic Area) male migrant workers in the Irish fishing industry.

It underlines how “extremely long working hours with few breaks, very low wages [usually below minimum wage given hours worked], racist insults and verbal abuse” were common experiences among the overwhelming majority of those interviewed.

The study warns the atypical working scheme (AWS) permission, which was introduced in 2016 to protect non-EEA 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”.


Worse conditions

Participants in the study underlined conditions had become “worse, worse, worse” under the scheme. Eight men reported being forced to work under threat of dismissal and deportation, while one said he was forced live on the boat without sufficient food. Ten workers reported severe harassment on the basis of race and religion.

The report noted that less than half of those surveyed recalled boats being inspected by the Workplace Relations Committee (WRC), or anyone asking about work-related issues, and that fear of losing one's job and work permit, along with language barriers, were key challenges for fishermen who wanted to request better working conditions.

The workers interviewed had a combined 200 years of experience working in the sector, while half the participants had been in Ireland for a decade or longer.

Researchers found more than two-thirds of those interviewed said they could work between 15 and 20 hours a day, while 10 of the workers interviewed said they were paid less than others on the boat performing the same work, particularly Irish and EU citizens. Just five of the participants reported feeling satisfied overall with their working situation.

Regularisation scheme

The report calls on the Department of Justice to ensure undocumented migrant fishermen qualify for the State’s new regularisation scheme, which is due to launch before the end of 2021. It also recommends that the AWS permit be granted for the sector rather than tied to an individual employer, and that a review of the model contract used in the AWS be carried out.

Some 227 workers currently 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.

The WRC and the Marine Survey Office of the Department of Transport should perform more outreach work and speak directly to migrant fishers in private, accompanied by trained interpreters, it added.

The annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report for Ireland from the US state department warned in July that “undocumented workers in the fishing industry [...] are vulnerable to trafficking. Migrant workers from Egypt and the Philippines are vulnerable to forced labour on fishing vessels.”

The report concludes that working conditions in the fishing sector “have not significantly improved” since the last study was carried out in 2017.

The Maynooth University study will be formally launched on Tuesday.

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak

Sorcha Pollak is an Irish Times reporter and cohost of the In the News podcast