Four UN Special Rapporteurs warn Ireland of risks of forced labour in Irish fishing industry

Four UN special rapporteurs on human rights have written to the Irish Government highlighting their concerns that the recently introduced working scheme for migrant fisherman is not in line with international human rights law and could lead to further exploitation. The four rapporteurs, Felipe González Morales (Special Rapporteur on the human rights of migrants), E. Tendayi Achiume (Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance), Urmila Bhoola Special (Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences) and Maria Grazia Giammarinaro (Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children) have called on the Government to ensure that the Atypical Working Scheme complies with Ireland’s human rights obligations. As far as I am aware, this is the first time that several UN rapporteurs have written to the Irish Government in this way.

The issue of the ill-treatment and exploitation of migrant workers in the Irish fishing industry came to the fore in 2015, following a detailed investigation by the Guardian newspaper. The scheme was introduced in response but has been seen to have several shortcomings as highlighted by the International Transport Workers Federation UK and Ireland. For the rapporteurs:

we are concerned about a series of barriers for non-EEA workers attempting to access the scheme, such as a short timeframe to make an application, a general lack of awareness of the scheme, the lack of information in a language non-EEA workers can understand and considerable costs related to the certification by a practicing solicitor. Importantly, according to the AWS, once a fisher’s work permit is granted, workers are eligible to work for only that employer, effectively tying migrant fishermen, their livelihood and immigration status to such employer and allegedly giving excessive power to potentially abusive employers over workers. As underlined below, this is not in line with international law and standards related to trafficking in persons and the human rights of migrants. In connection to this, it has also been brought to our attention that those workers that could not convince their employers to apply for the AWS scheme have no choice but to remain undocumented. Undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation, as they fear losing their job and consequently being at risk of deportation; therefore they often refrain from filing a complaint against their abusive employer.

In their letter, they also highlight hours, pay and conditions of work in the industry:

80.7% of respondents reported working more than 60 hours per week and 65.3% more than 100 hours per week, while the employment contract for the permit applied a standard 39 hour work per week. Similarly, migrant fishermen working under the AWS reported that underpayment of wages is widespread, amounting to an average of Euro 2.82 per hour, which is way below the legal minimum wage rate, amounting to Euro 9.15 per hour. In terms of safety and working conditions, 40% of migrant fishermen under the AWS reported not feeling safe at work and 36.6% of them reported having either personally sustained injuries or witnessed others injured at work. Moreover, we were informed that one in four workers interviewed experienced verbal and/or physical abuse and one in five experienced discrimination, which included unequal pay or unfair share of the catch compared to other European fishermen. Migrant fishermen also reported having to take on more difficult or risky jobs and facing racist insults.

The four UN special rapporteurs set out the following concerns:

We wish to express our concern that the AWS, as currently framed, does not provide for effectively preventing and combating trafficking in persons for the purpose of forced labour and labour exploitation in the fishing industry, nor does it provide for adequate protection of the rights of migrant fishermen. Instead, the provision which ties a work permit to a particular employer is likely to have the unintended consequence of increasing the position of vulnerability and dependency of employees particularly vis à vis unethical employers. Migrant workers are often threatened with loss of residence and eventually deportation, in case they attempt to quit or denounce their exploitative working conditions.

We also wish to express our concerns on the conditions in which migrant fishermen allegedly find themselves under the AWS: the reported isolation, abuse of vulnerability, physical violence, intimidation and threats, withholding of wages, abusive working and living conditions and excessive overtime have been identified by ILO among indicators of forced labour. All this considered, we are concerned that a number of migrant workers in the fishing industry may be victims of trafficking in persons for the purpose of forced labour or labour exploitation.

They have requested information from the Irish Government in light of these concerns. For the Government’s part, a Department of Justice spokesperson has stated that “The minister takes any allegation of exploitation very seriously, particularly from UN special rapporteurs. A number of departments and agencies have responsibility in this area and will be responding to all matters raised.”

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