Irish government, NGO clash over human trafficking call-out

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) is accusing the Irish government of turning a blind eye toward human trafficking in the Irish fishing fleet.

The ITF, a union representing fishers working at sea and on land, noted that Ireland was once again listed as a second-tier country in the “Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report 2021,” a watchlist compiled by the U.S. State Department that tracks human trafficking worldwide. The report specifically called out Ireland’s fishing industry for leaving undocumented workers in Ireland’s fishing industry vulnerable to human trafficking.

Ireland – which first fell to Tier 2 in 2018 –  and Romania were the two European Union given Tier 2 Watch List status, reserved for countries whose governments do not fully meet the minimum standards of the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, and for which  “the estimated number of victims of severe forms of trafficking is very significant or is significantly increasing and the country is not taking proportional concrete actions; or there is a failure to provide evidence of increasing efforts to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons from the previous year, including increased investigations, prosecutions, and convictions of trafficking crimes, increased assistance to victims, and decreasing evidence of complicity in severe forms of trafficking by government officials.”

In a statement, the ITF said Ireland struggles with “systematic deficiencies to eliminate the scourge of human trafficking in the country.”

“While deficiencies in victim identification, referral, and assistance had all been identified to the Irish government by the ITF and other NGOs in the last 12 months, the Irish government had still failed to protect fishers and other vulnerable workers from trafficking and gross exploitation,” it said in a press release.

The ITF criticized the Irish government for failing to weed out human trafficking and other abuses the exist in the country’s fishing industry.

“The Irish government has allowed whole sectors of the economy to develop a low-wage model that can only be sustained by bringing in vulnerable workers from Asia and Africa. By their inaction, the state is allowing unscrupulous employers to regard these workers as totally expendable, as people they can hire and fire with impunity because of the inability or unwillingness of state agencies to uphold the law,” it said. “If Ireland wishes to avoid further tarnishing its international reputation, it must immediately work with unions to grow its monitoring and enforcement mechanisms against the trade in human misery currently taking place under its very nose.”

ITF Fisheries Campaign Lead in Dublin Michael O’Brien, said he believes the Irish media and its political establishment are reluctant to criticize the fishing industry. The ITF has found it “very difficult to break through” with local media, which has tended to steer clear of the issue “because of the perceived complexities of the issues in fishing,” O’Brien said.

More concerning, O’Brien said, was that the U.S. reported noted apparent reluctance among Irish authorities to prosecute human trafficking cases. O’Brien said there is a view among Irish authorities that “human trafficking is a problem where the perpetrators are foreigners.”

Irish Justice Department Minister of State Hildegarde Naughton rejected the ITF’s criticism, referring to it as only “one voice” not representative of the actual situation regarding migrant workers in Ireland.

“No evidence has been found to support the allegations of widespread human trafficking in the fishing industry and it is worrying that the [U.S.] State Department chose to place weight on one voice and not to take account of the balance of stakeholder assessment – including assessment by NGOs active in Ireland in tackling human trafficking – that these accusations are without foundation,” Naughton said.

In its response to Naughton, the ITF issued a statement of its own, pointing out that over 30 fishers had been admitted into the national referral mechanism for suspected victims of human trafficking and that some of the cases remain under investigation. Among those referrals were two Egyptian fishermen who were working on a trawler that sunk in March 2021 off the southern Irish coast. Those referred to the program have a limit of 60 days by which they must file formal allegations of trafficking. The ITF has also highlighted a case of four Ghanaian nationals who have also levied accusations of human trafficking against Irish fishing companies they worked for earlier this year.

The ITF said Naughton’s claims that forced labor in fisheries were “without foundation” by dint of Ireland’s Director of Public Prosecutions refusing to act on them rang false.

“It should then follow that every single other referral that was initiated by others on behalf of sex workers, agricultural workers, nail bar workers, and domestic servants were equally ‘without foundation,’” it said.

Bord Bia, Ireland’s national food marketing agency, declined to comment on the conditions of foreign laborers on Irish fishing vessels.

“Bord Bia is the market development and promotion agency for the Irish seafood sector,” the group said in a statement to SeafoodSource. “It is beyond our remit to question fisheries on their employment practices.”

Forced labor in fisheries has become a hot-button issue for U.S. government, which is seeking to add verbiage on labor and trafficking into ongoing World Trade Organization negotiations on ending harmful fishery subsidies. Last year, China and Taiwan were listed by the U.S. Department of Labor in its annual report on commodities associated with forced labor, claiming the majority of workers onboard their distant-water fishing vessels are migrants who are frequently subject to abuse that sometimes rises to the level of human rights violations.

China, in particular, has been the focus of U.S. sanctions issued in response to alleged human rights abuses in the fishing sector. In December 2020, the U.S. Department of State revoked the travel visas of executives of Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China-based distant-water fishing firm Pingtan Marine, which is listed publicly on the NASDAQ Stock Exchange, alleging the company’s was involved in illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. Earlier this year, the U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued withhold release order against Dalian Ocean Fishing after what the agency said was a yearlong investigation that revealed forced labor in the company’s operations. The order effectively bars the company’s products from entering American ports.

No similar actions have been taken by the U.S. government against Ireland.


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