Sunday 25 August 2019

Migrant workers allege low pay and poverty on Irish trawlers

Labour Senator Ged Nash looking into payments Picture: Tom Burke
Labour Senator Ged Nash looking into payments Picture: Tom Burke
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

An unprecedented meeting of more than 40 North African migrants heard allegations that low pay and employment abuses continue in the Irish fishing industry despite legislation introduced a year ago to protect them.

Forty-one migrant fishermen - most of them Egyptian - travelled from ports in Cork, Waterford, Wexford and Dublin to attend the meeting in Drogheda on Wednesday.

Only four men at the meeting had valid work permits. Others were working illegally, but many had lost their jobs on Irish trawlers in recent months. All claim they were underpaid or owed money by their employers. Many of the men were "destitute" with several telling the Sunday Independent that they survived on the generosity of friends. Three men are "on the run" from deportation.

The meeting was organised by the International Transport Federation (ITF), which is trying to organise social welfare assistance for those "destitute" migrant workers who qualify, and also plans to set up a helpline.

Ged Nash, the former employment minister who introduced reforms that ensured the minimum wage for migrants last year, also attended the meeting.

After listening to their stories, he told them it appeared the new measures may not be working, and raised concerns about how they were implemented. Nash, now a Labour Senator, said his office will be liaising with the Department of Social Welfare to see whether poverty-stricken migrant workers qualify for "exceptional needs payment".

The Guardian newspaper published a major investigation alleging that migrants working on some Irish trawlers were used as cheap labour, worked long hours and suffered sleep deprivation, and had little employment protections. Irish fishing industry reacted angrily to the allegations.

The Government responded with a new scheme to ensure they were paid the minimum wage and had access to Irish employment rights.

Of the 41 men who crowded into the hired hotel conference room, few spoke English and most were angry and nervous. Several told disturbing personal stories about their experiences on Irish trawlers, from working 150 hours on 10-day trips to suffering serious injuries they were not compensated for.

A number of the Egyptian men claimed they had been let go without notice in recent months, many of them insisting that they were still owed money by their employers.

One fisherman said he worked with the same skipper on a trawler in the south-west for six years without a work permit. He was paid between €400 and €500 for his share of the catch. After new legislation came in last year, he said his employer promised to regularise his situation by applying for a work permit for him, but he was fired without reason in September. The fisherman, whose wife is pregnant, says he is surviving on the generosity of friends and fears he will be deported.

A second fisherman claimed the trawler owner paid him €180 a week and was told that the rest was going on emergency tax. He lost his job in September, and when he made inquiries with the Revenue Commissioners to get his tax back, he claimed he was told no emergency tax had been paid.

A third man claimed that he was underpaid by €9,500 for overtime he was not paid for. He claimed he worked 150 hours on one 10-day fishing trip and was getting paid €339 a week.

The ITF hopes to organise similar meetings in the new year.

Ken Fleming, ITF's organiser, said: "Almost everybody in the State believes that the ITF is fantasising about this problem. Last Wednesday, 41 migrant fishers came from all over Ireland to tell their story in front of the Minister who introduced the new scheme. It's now time for the State to come out its cocoon of fantasy."

The Workplace Relations Commission (WRC) says it detected only 22 undocumented workers between June and November but no employers had been prosecuted for hiring them.

Sunday Independent

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