Social Affairs Correspondent
Sixteen fishermen from outside the EU, who gardaí suspect have been trafficked for exploitation in the industry, have been taken into the care of the State.
Gardaí are investigating the cases of the men, from Egypt, the Philippines and Ghana, under the provisions of the 2008 Human Trafficking Act. A person convicted under the Act faces a fine of up to life in prison.
Twelve of the men arrived in Ireland with permits granted under an Atypical Working Scheme (AWS) for Non-EEA Crew in the Irish Fishing Fleet, established especially for the industry in 2016.
According to the United Nations human trafficking includes the transportation, recruitment or receipt of people, by means of force, coercion, abduction, fraud, deception or abuse of power or vulnerability.
Four others, from Ghana, arrived in Belfast at the end of January with UK transit visas to work on vessels out of Belfast. They were brought directly across the border and worked on vessels out of ports including Howth, Dunmore East, Co Waterford and Castletownbere, Co Cork, without Irish permits, before being asked to leave a boat in Howth at the beginning of April.
They are now being accommodated in the Balseskin reception centre in Dublin, having been referred to gardaí by the International Transport Federation, a trade union. The men have the right to work while they await the outcome of the investigation, and must remain as here witnesses.
The ITF, which is affiliated to Siptu, describes the AWS as "unfit for purpose" and is calling on Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan – the lead Minister in granting permits – to suspend the scheme.
They say the scheme, established amid concerns of widespread exploitation in the industry, is being widely ignored and undermined, with evidence of wages as low as €2.40 an hour, 20-hour working days and neither sick-pay nor insurance.
In a report earlier this year the Irish Naval Service said between January 2016 and September 2017, it boarded and inspected 86 Irish registered fishing vessels and found 182 non-EEA crew members, of who 73 had the required permits and 109 had not.
The ITF's solicitors, Mason, Hayes and Curran, in a letter on 16th May 2018, said if the AWS is not suspended the federation will "initiate proceedings in the High Court. seeking orders restraining the grant or renewal of further permissions" under the scheme.
“The continued operation of the AWS manifestly represents a real and imminent danger [to fishermen’s human rights]...there is now clear, unambiguous evidence that the AWS is not fit for purpose...Fishermen abroad are induced to come to Ireland by the hollow promise of safe and fair working conditions. Dozens of fishermen are...vulnerable to trafficking and ..severe labour exploitation.”
The four Ghanaian fishermen, interviewed by The Irish Times last month, were at a press conference hosted by the ITF on Thursday. One of them, Joshua Baafi (36), said the men were thankful for the intervention of the ITF in their case.
“We thank God for this.” They are looking for work, in decorating, cleaning “or anything” but have been unable to so find anything so far.
A spokesman for the Department of Justice said: “This Government abhors any abuse of proper employment conditions, in any circumstance.
"In the matter of abuses or otherwise of the employment conditions of any Non EEA National in the Irish fishing industry, the relevant authorities are primarily the Workplace Relations Commission and the Marine Survey Office.
“The Department does not comment with third parties on any correspondence it receives. Any change to the scheme would be a matter for the relevant Departments with the approval of Government. ”