Ireland plans to cut work-permit scheme for migrant fishing laborers

Ireland looks set to scrap a work-permit scheme introduced in 2015 for non-European fishery workers after a review ordered by government recommended a transition to regular employment permits given to other immigrants.

On 11 October, after a delay of seven months, the Irish government finally approved the publication of the Review of the Atypical Scheme for non-EEA Crew in the Irish Fishing Fleet. Three governmental departments – agriculture, enterprise, and justice – approved recommendations in the review to the employment of non-European Economic Area fishers in the Irish fishing fleet.

The Atypical Working Scheme (AWS) for non-EEA Crew in the Irish fishing fleet was established in 2015 to regularize the status of non-European workers on Irish fishing vessels. But Ireland has faced international scrutiny since the U.S. State Department downgraded the country’s ranking in its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report 2021, specifically mentioning labor abuse in Ireland’s fishing industry as part of its rationale.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), a union representing fishers working at sea and on land, previously called for the elimination of the visa scheme. The ITF has claimed the scheme effectively indentures workers to their employers and has led to poor pay and working conditions, while not allowing workers the right to pursue Irish citizenship or the right to bring family members into the country.

Michael O’Brien, fisheries campaign lead for Ireland at the International Transport Workers’ Federation, said the government recently shifted its position on the issue, with Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Leo Varadkar, conceding “very serious exploitation” of migrant workers in the sector.

Varadkar was answering questions from a parliamentary committee as to why Ireland’s government hasn’t delivered on a promised legislative amendment to allow migrant fishermen access higher compensation payments from the Irish labor courts. The questions stemmed from an Irish Labour Court hearing in September 2022 that awarded EUR 14,000 (USD 13,800) to a fisherman named Jose Salandron, who brought a case against Ivan Wilde Ltd. for excessive working hours.

Cases can be taken by migrant fishers to the WRC– for adjudication of complaints on employment conditions, and to the Labour Court if either side appeals the WRC decision. Under Irish labor law, however, fishing laborers are not able to take cases concerning working hours, thus limiting the compensation they can claim, O’Brien said.

“The problem is that complaints related to excessive working hours and insufficient breaks and rest periods cannot be heard by the WRC or Labour Court,” said O’Brien, who has been pressuring the Department of Enterprise, Trade, and Employment, where Varadkar is minister, to honor a 2019 promise of an amendment to the Organisation of Working Time Act, which covers these offenses.  

O’Brien said he was promised by government that the legislation would be amended this spring.

“If this were done, it would lay the basis for fishers to get far bigger awards from the WRC,” he said.

O’Brien said Varadkar’s comments showed the “scale and breadth” of labor abuses of migrants. O’Brien said 75 percent of Irish vessel owners that employ workers under the atypical working scheme “have had adverse findings against them in the course of the last six years” and Ireland’s Workplace Relations Commission, a state agency, had identified 400 labor-related offenses among 95 vessel-owners.

“There is a clear culture of repeat offending,” O’Brien told SeafoodSource. “Clearly, even though the WRC inspectorate is making detections and various sanctions flow from those detections, the punishments are not dissuasive enough because they do not offset the profits they are extracting from the migrant fishers.”

The government has faced further pressure to act on the issue after the European Commission, the E.U.’s legislative arm, on 14 September published proposals for a regulation prohibiting products made with forced labor from sale in the E.U.

In response to a question regarding the Varadkar’s comments and ITF’s response, the Irish Fish Producers Organisation told SeafoodSource it “unequivocally supports the right of all non-EEA migrant fishers to fair treatment in the workplace.”

Traditionally, many crew members on Irish fishing vessels are “share-fishers” and, therefore, self-employed, according to IFPO CEO Aodh O’Donnell.

“But whether crewmembers are employed or self-employed, they have the right to fair working conditions. We support the implementation of overdue legislation to protect migrant fishers and to grant them the full rights and entitlements,” O’Donnell said.

The IFPO is raising awareness of labor laws among its members, O’Donnell, and vessel-owners recently joined an ITF-organized rally at the Irish parliament building “in solidarity with our migrant crew colleagues to support them in a protest” seeking changes to working regulations.

IFPO efforts to share information about working on Irish vessels makes “unique in working with our crews to press for much needed legislative changes in the permit schemes for fishers,” O’Donnell said.

“Fair and equal treatment is a fundamental principle and we do not condone any abuse or victimisation of crew,” O’Donnell said. “As in all workplaces, it is in everyone’s interest to have a satisfied crew, operating in good conditions.”

Meanwhile, a U.S. labor campaign group has said that Ireland could face sanction for labor conditions under a new E.U. law banning goods made by forced labor. In March 2022, Liberty Shared filed a petition with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection agency, asking 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 specifically called out four Irish fishing companies by name for CBP scrutiny.

Duncan Jepson, lawyer and managing director of Liberty Shared, which describes itself as a campaign group against modern-day slavery, told SeafoodSource his organization had supplied detailed information on Irish fishing firms to U.S. authorities.

“I understand the case remains open, with the main issue being identifying products that come into the U.S. – the size of business from Ireland is very small. It is a question of continuing to monitor,” Jepson said.

Jepson said his organization hopes to pass information to Irish banks “so they can better understand the supply chains and their exposure to these issues.”

“Obviously, money arising and transacted from human trafficking or forced labor is money laundering and finally we can prepare for the new E.U. law banning the sale of goods produced with forced labor,” he said. “It is perhaps just a matter of time if the industry doesn't change.” 


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