DUBLIN, June 14 — After three years working illegally on Irish fishing boats, Egyptian migrant Karim was left with a crushed finger and thousands of euros in unpaid wages, but he hoped things would improve when the government offered him a proper contract.
However, the 2016 scheme — intended to bring non-European migrants out of the shadows to work legally on Irish fishing vessels — only made things worse, he said, as his work permit was sponsored by his employer who exploited that power.
“I was tied up with the boat owner because of the contract ... I can’t be in Ireland anymore if I leave him, and he knows that,” said Karim, one of 21 migrants identified by the police as potential human trafficking victims.
“The government wanted to make us legal. So they got a rope and tied us from the necks and gave the other side of the rope to the boat owner,” said Karim, who declined to give his real name.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation said in emailed comments the scheme ensures that non-European Economic Area (EEA) workers “enjoy the same full suite of employment protections as any EEA worker in Ireland”.
Ireland agreed to reform the Atypical Workers Scheme (AWS) in April, after the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) union took it to the High Court in 2018, claiming the AWS enabled “slave-like conditions” on boats.
But three Egyptian fishermen who said they were abused under the AWS said the reforms would likely fail as regulations were poorly enforced, sanctions were too weak to deter rule-breaking and boat owners were often tipped off about inspections.
“I don’t believe in something getting better in the fishing this way,” said Omar, one of the three Egyptian fisherman interviewed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “Because they make the law and never protect it, so there’s no point.”
Ireland’s 2,000-strong fishing fleet employs about 3,400 people and is worth some €400 million (RM1.88 billion) a year, according to government data.
With no convictions since amending its anti-trafficking law in 2013, the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons report last year downgraded Ireland from Tier 1 to Tier 2.
Under the new deal, fishermen can change employers without jeopardising their immigration status and claim compensation for mistreatment, while enforcement and monitoring are stepped up.
This should protect crew like Karim whose pay was slashed by two-thirds to €340 a week after joining the AWS, while his hours were increased and he worked more than 40 days without a break.
When he complained, his employer threatened to have him deported back to Egypt.
“(While working illegally) I was treated bad, I was getting less money than others and I was abused,” said Karim.
“But I had the option to leave,” he said, highlighting the ease with which illegal migrants could switch jobs and remain below the radar before the AWS brought them into formal employ.
The ITF estimates only a fraction of some 1,000 illegal migrants trawling for fish in Ireland have joined the AWS.
Only 199 permits were issued in the first 15 months of the scheme up until June 2017, government data shows, with almost 90 per cent going to fishermen from Egypt and the Philippines.
This suggests that hundreds of foreign fisherman in Ireland do not have permits, particularly those working on smaller boats, which are excluded from the AWS, said ITF’s Fleming.
Despite bringing migrant workers into formal employment, the AWS has failed to make fishing safer, fishermen said.
“People die, or just lose their finger. It’s happened too many times,” said Omar, who was seriously injured when a cabin door swung loose and crushed his ribs, leaving him unable to breathe and certain he would die.
“In just a minute, you can lose your life.”
Omar said the captain refused to call a helicopter and he waited 20 hours to reach harbour and a hospital. He said it took him months to recover and the captain did not pay the medical bills and compensation he promised.
Long hours and a lack of sleep can be deadly. When five fishermen drowned in 2013 after a trawler hit the rocks, Irish investigators said the main cause of the accident was that crew had at most five hours sleep during 40 hours at sea.
Many migrant fishermen interviewed by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland in 2017 said they felt unsafe at work, with the majority working more than 100 hours a week, for an average hourly wage of €2.82 — a third of the legal minimum.
Omar said his employer made him to sign blank time sheets and paid him the minimum wage for a 39-hour week, regardless of hours worked, while ship captains subjected him to racial abuse.
But he was too scared to make a fuss.
“The magic world they use — deported,” he said. “They have your address, your email, your phone, so they can get you anywhere you are.”
Patrick Murphy, head of one trade body — the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation, which represents about 60 vessels, largely family-owned — welcomed the reform of the AWS, saying flexibility in permits is better for crew and employers.
He rejected reports of abusive work practices.
“If there’s widespread abuse inside the boats, why aren’t there fishermen in every court in the land being prosecuted by the state?” he asked.
All three fishermen said they were regularly ordered to hide during inspections and boat owners were often tipped off about onshore raids to spot illegal catches and workers.
“When the navy came down on the boat, the skipper went down and said, ‘Go hide yourself somewhere in the cabin’,” said Omar.
“We hide the fish everywhere and the prawns everywhere. And they go down and talk to the skipper and he says everything’s fine and that’s it. They never go around checking the boat.”
The union’s Fleming said migrant fishermen often know about police raids before they happen, proof that boat owners are warned by others in their tight-knit communities.
The Irish Workplace Relations Commission, the government’s main labour inspection agency, inspected 169 out of 172 vessels under the AWS last year, leading to 12 prosecutions, five of which have concluded with fines.
It detected 227 contraventions, the most common being 62 ships with no records, 38 refusals to comply with inspection requests and 36 cases without permission to work and 54 having no payslips or pay irregularities.
Fleming, the ITF coordinator, said the small number of pay issues detected showed inspections were ineffective.
“Nobody in the system that I’ve met has been paid correctly — not one,” he said, adding that his union is ready to return to court if the reforms fail to bear fruit. Meanwhile Omar has resolved never to step foot again on an Irish fishing trawler as injuries to his chest, knees and back have taken their toll.
“I’m 36 years old and I can’t walk for 10 minutes... If I had known, I would never have come here. But I didn’t expect that,” he said. “Freedom, the serious life, the good life — that’s what I was looking for when I came to Ireland.” — Thomson Reuters Foundation