It has been an open secret for years that undocumented foreign nationals are abused and exploited within the sea fishing industry, in terms of their wages and working conditions. State agencies and successive governments have failed to close legal loopholes that exploited them or introduce regulatory measures. Representative bodies and State agencies may not have condoned what was going on, but took little action to stop it. Only now, in the glare of publicity, has a Government working group been established to address issues of people trafficking and the exploitation of workers.
An investigation by the Guardian newspaper traced the movement of undocumented workers from Africa and Asia to the UK and their subsequent employment within the Scottish and Irish fishing fleets at a fraction of local pay. Living aboard trawlers, because their status makes them liable to arrest if they go ashore, they are required to work very long hours and are subjected to abuse by unscrupulous employers.
This is one aspect of an industry that has more than its fair share of cowboys, where illegal landings, breaches of quota and unscheduled processing activities are all in a day’s work. Declining stocks within the EU and increased fishing effort created a race to the bottom in terms of working conditions and cost cutting measures.
Because life at sea is so hard and dangerous, many young Irishmen abandoned it a decade ago for employment in a booming construction sector. EU nationals and undocumented foreign workers replaced them in many instances.
As profit margins tightened within the white fish fleet, and a guaranteed minimum wage remained out of reach, undocumented workers came to make up to 50 per cent of the workforce. Their deportation would cause considerable disruption. No wonder the Government is in a hurry to establish a “working group”. It will provide State officials and industry representatives with a breathing space in which arrangements can be made to retain necessary workers and ensure they are humanely treated.