Ireland’s fishing industry is facing sanctions by U.S. authorities after a U.S.-based human rights campaign group filed a report with American authorities alleging exploitation of migrant workers aboard Irish fishing vessels.
In a petition to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Washington D.C.-headquartered legal advocacy group Liberty Shared asked the CBP to exclude seafood “caught and or produced wholly or in part using forced labor by participants in the fishing industry in the Republic of Ireland.” The petition named four Irish fishing companies it said merit scrutiny from the CBP.
The CBP has the power to place withhold-release orders (WROs) on companies and fishing vessels, preventing their products from entering the US. The CBP has issued WROs against five Taiwanese-owned fishing vessels and state-owned Chinese fishing firm Dalian Ocean Fishing Company. While Irish seafood exports to the U.S. are minimal, the American seafood market is the world’s largest.
Duncan Jepson, a lawyer and the managing director of Liberty Shared, which describes itself as a campaign group working to end modern-day slavery, pointed to “the weak preventions and protections from human trafficking and forced labor” in Ireland as having drawn the organization’s attention. The U.S. State Department's listing of Ireland in the Trafficking in Person 2021 report was a particular draw for Liberty Shared to turn its focus to issues in Ireland’s fishing industry, Jepson said.
Ireland lacks a robust system of governance and controls around labor and accountability for violations, according to Jepson. As an example, an Egyptian fishing worker who claimed he worked 17 hours a day – after having been contracted to work eight – was awarded EUR 20,000 (USD 22,000) in November 2021 by Ireland’s Workplace Relations Commission, a state body tasked with adjudicating labor disputes.
“There are allegations from fishers and the governance of this industry and its members is weak, in addition to the general systemic weakness of governance of the fishing industry,” he said.
A lack of governance and controls in Ireland’s fishery industry has resulted in a lack of data and information, which is part of the reason the country landed in the U.S. report, Jepson said.
“While there are allegations, the question is one of imports into the U.S. and whether these can be tied to vessels and companies involved in the allegations, and this is difficult for many species as there is limited tracking and disclosure,” he said.
With the European Union considering an import ban mechanism similar to that policed by the U.S. CBP, a U.S. ban on Irish fishing firms or vessels “would set a precedent,” Jepson told SeafoodSource. He said he believes the global fishing industry is probably heading to “some sort of inflection point.”
“Data and information keeps increasing as to supply chains and allegations,” he said. “For those failing to improve standards and commit unlawful acts, this will trigger an accountability actions in the U.S. and perhaps, in time, in the E.U.”
Enforcement action on labor abuse claims against fishery firms from Ireland or elsewhere will require great investigative precision by the CBP, noted Gavin Gibbons, spokesperson at the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group representing the U.S. seafood industry.
“Getting at the challenge of labor violations is multifaceted, and strong polices, backed up by actions, send a message and have an impact,” he told SeafoodSource. “But it’s important to note that regulators need to act when there is clear and compelling evidence. Simply making obtuse accusations and demanding action undercuts what can be a powerful tool … If CBP can in fact build a quality case around something as specific as a vessel, that would be great work. Hitting targeted bad actors could have a significant impact.”
The International Transport Federation, a union representing some fisheries workers, has called on the Irish government to scrap its Atypical Working Scheme, which was introduced in 2016 to regularize the status of non-E.U. citizens working onboard Irish fishing vessels. The ITF claims the scheme effectively indentures workers to their employers. In a recent submission to the Irish government’s review of the country’s Atypical Working Scheme at the Department of Justice, ITF’s Ireland fisheries campaign lead Michael O’Brien said the visa permit scheme has led to abuses including “overwork and poverty pay.”
“By giving the ability of the vessel owner to register migrant fishers with the state as part of this scheme, as opposed to giving fishers the right to document themselves, the scheme was fatally flawed from the outset,” O’Brien said. “Some 21 percent of current vessel-owners, representing almost 40 percent of the Irish fleet, have either had adverse rulings made against them for exploitation, are under ongoing Garda investigation for human trafficking, or are the subject of upcoming Workplace Relation Commission hearings or investigations for unpaid wages.”
To improve pay and conditions, the ITF wants the Atypical Work Permit wants fishermen working in Irish waters to be brought under the Critical Skills Permit scheme, which is operated by Ireland’s Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, which oversees workers brought into the country from abroad in order to address labor shortages in other sectors.
O’Brien said he spoke with representatives of MDU, the Ghanaian seafarer’s union, during a recent West Africa Fisheries Organising Project conference in Dakar, Senegal, “to see what steps can be taken to combat the activities of bogus recruitment agents in Ghana who have been responsible for the trafficking of fishers to Ireland in recent years and to disseminate information to fishing communities in Ghana about the pitfalls and dangers of coming to work in Ireland for exploitative employers.”
Irish fishing vessel operators are also not happy with the Atypical Working Scheme. In a statement on behalf of several Irish fishing groups, including the Irish South and East Producer Organisation and Killybegs Fishermens Organisation, Irish Fish Producers Organisation (IFPO) CEO John Ward called for better communication between government departments responsible for implementing the permit scheme and more efficient processing of paperwork. It also wants non-EEA fishermen who have been in Ireland for more than five years on the AWS permit to be entitled to regularize their immigration status.
The industry pushed back against a report from the Maynooth University Department of Law, which documented the travails of foreign workers in Ireland’s fishing industry. The report, “Experiences of Non-EEA [European Economic Area] Workers in the Irish Fishing Industry,” published in October 2021, prompted the Irish government to announce a review of the Atypical Visa Scheme. The report was based on interviews with 24 non-European Economic Area workers currently employed in the Irish fishing industry and those who were profiled were “recruited by a staff member of the ITF out of 328 non-EEA fishers” employed on Irish fishing vessels.
“The conclusions of the report were based on a specially selected 7 percent cohort. While this does not denigrate the genuine complaints of that group of fishers, it is only fair to point out that many commercial/industrial operations in Ireland could match that level of employee dissatisfaction if a similar review was conducted but it is unlikely to attract the same level of attention,” IFPO said in a statement.
Without addressing any specific claims of mistreatment made by the ITF or levelled in the report, the fishing organisations’ statement criticized the report, saying it was commissioned by the ITF, an organization Ward said is biased against the Irish fishing industry.
Ward told SeafoodSource ITF’s suggestion that human trafficking is occurring in the Irish fishing industry was “completely unjustified.”
“It is fair to conclude that the other 93 percent [non-EEA workers not surveyed or interviewed by the ITF] did not have the same level of problems, and this sector must also be examined, as there must be valuable lessons to be learned from those who have come to fish on Irish fishing vessels and have made that transition successfully.”
Photo courtesy of Mick Harper/Shutterstock