Q&A with Ged Nash, Irish fishermen's rights advocate
More than a year after a Guardian undercover exposé of exploitation of undocumented non-European Union migrant workers on Irish fishing trawlers, one of the key figures in the Irish government’s response to the scandal is calling for rogue employers to face stiffer penalties.
In an interview with SeafoodSource, Gerald "Ged" Nash, a senator in the upper house of Ireland’s parliament and formerly Ireland’s minister for business and employment, called for harsher treatment of companies that fail to follow a scheme put in place to regularize the paperwork of foreign workers, who are largely from Egypt and the Philippines.
In 2015, Ged helped set up a task force chaired by the then-Agriculture and Fisheries Minister Simon Coveney. Under the scheme the task force created, Ireland’s Department of Justice and Equality provides a work permission for fishermen who come from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) through a ‘special atypical working scheme’ for seafarers.
The program commenced in February 2016 and for the first three months, applications were confined to non-EEA crew members who were already working in the Irish fishing industry. Eventually, the cutoff date was extended to the end of June 2016 to encourage enrollment. Yet, despite ambitious marketing efforts by state bodies to increase Irish seafood sales in emerging markets, parts of the industry do not appear to be appropriately rewarding workers manning trawlers.
SeafoodSource: Why is there a need for foreign workers in Irish fisheries?
Nash: In the past 20 years, a lot of Irish workers won’t work in the sector due to the risks… By definition, it’s a risky industry – uncertain and insecure. Ireland’s coastal communities have sought alternatives in different sectors such as construction and services.
SeafoodSource: How was the ‘special atypical working scheme’ designed and how has it worked out so far?
Nash: I thought the best way to approach it was through an atypical permit scheme. We would get the employees into the Irish system and thus covered by minimum wage, sick pay, holiday pay, [social security] stamps and formal contracts.
We set up what we believed was a straightforward scheme. It was welcomed by many proactive people in the industry. They could see it was affecting their reputation of the industry and [they] supported it. We established a risk-based model of inspection and we worked with industry to promote it. We gave it a few months to bed down and then restricted it to those who are here and employers should apply for permits.
SeafoodSource: But take up of the scheme is low and enforcement isn’t happening?
Nash: I lost my Dáil [parliament] seat a few months later [in parliamentary elections held after the scheme was introduced] but I have monitored enforcement. In December 2016, I met with 40 Egyptian fishermen in Drogheda and they had come from all over Ireland. Their testimony shocked me. We did a show of hands to show how many had valid permits – only four of the 40 raised their hands.
It was also apparent that some valid permit holders were disputing with skippers over wages and were taken off vessels and were effectively on the run with no money. People were expected to work over 100 hours a week. The minimum wage was only paid for 40 hours. The minimum wage was seen by some employers as a ceiling, not a floor.
Also some workers were working on the basis that they were not here, and they [employers] were giving addresses in Egypt, even though these workers had been here since 2013. The Department of Justice was taking this at face value.
SeafoodSource: How were some employers giving Egyptian addresses for the workers?
Nash: The scheme applies to workers who were already here, to regularize them. But these employers are claiming that the workers are normally resident in Egypt and not in Ireland and hence [they are] not obliged to apply the scheme and give them contracts.
SeafoodSource: What is the scale of the problem in terms of the number of undocumented workers?
Nash: The Egyptian embassy says 2,000 workers [serve] on vessels in Ireland – north and south – and only 200 of them have proper permits. It’s hard to say, but if you take the figure from the Egyptian Embassy and apply it pro-rata, it appears there’s 200 with valid paperwork out of 1,500 on trawlers in the Irish Republic.
SeafoodSource: You have complained of lack of interest by state agencies in enforcing the scheme.
Nash: I’ve been very concerned about the lack of interest. The Workplace Relations Commission has been doing its best with the resources it has. But other state agencies are less interested. [Editor’s note: Nash declined to name these agencies.]
There have been a number of multi-agency raids. There has been a tendency to go after the more compliant while [letting pass] some less compliant. So I ask: is the risk-based approach being effective? We have a situation now in which neither the IFPO [Irish Fish Producers Organization] and ITF [International Transport Workers Federation] will accept that the scheme is working.
SeafoodSource: So it’s a very negative outlook for these workers?
Nash: Not entirely. There is hope. Some ministers have shown interest and are open to engagement with bodies to ensure it works. We need a system that works. We have talked to legitimate trawler operators who love what they do and they don’t want to see a race to the bottom.
There is a culture in certain sectors that, by definition, workers are isolated and it’s difficult to police. A number of operators don’t seem to accept that the rules have changed.
SeafoodSource: Is abuse of undocumented workers a problem across many sectors of the Irish economy?
Nash: The undocumented issue has arisen in some sectors and has been heavily policed in recent years. Rogue employers hire non-EEA workers into vulnerable areas of the economy like fishing, food processing and hospitality. We have had responses to this, such as the Irish agency workers legislation.
Some workers are being trafficked into Ireland. Their biggest fear is a knock on the door by the [Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service], even though in many cases they have come here in good faith.
SeafoodSource: Is the plight of the undocumented fisheries workers high on the political agenda in Ireland?
Nash: No, it’s not high up the political agenda. Government needs to take notice and enforce the law and apply more severe penalties.
Some parts of the fishery industry has now recently signaled they want workers to be allowed to become share fishermen and I accept this, but they should also have employee rights and protections.
SeafoodSource: What is the current status of the Egyptian fishermen you met in December?
Nash: The Egyptian fishermen are hiding in run-down accommodation, in many cases relying on the charity of others. I tried to get them assistance from the Department of Social Protection but was told they’d have to first go through the International Organisation for Migration.