African and Asian migrant workers are being routinely but illegally used as cheap labour on Irish fishing trawlers working out of some of the country’s most popular tourist ports, the Guardian can reveal.
A year-long investigation into the Irish prawn and whitefish sector has uncovered undocumented Ghanaian, Filipino, Egyptian and Indian fishermen manning boats in ports from Cork to Galway. They have described a catalogue of abuses, including being confined to vessels unless given permission by their skippers to go on land, and being paid less than half the Irish minimum wage that would apply if they were legally employed. They have also spoken of extreme sleep deprivation, having to work for days or nights on end with only a few hours’ sleep, and with no proper rest days.
Some migrant workers claim to have been deceived and appear to have been trafficked on to trawlers for labour exploitation, an abuse that would be a form of modern slavery.
Abraham Okoh*, a Ghanaian fisherman (whose name we have changed), for example, told us he had been bonded by debt to an agent in Accra who had found him a job on an Irish trawler and promised to arrange all visas and travel. He entered via Heathrow and Belfast, and was told to catch the bus from Northern Ireland to the port in Ireland where his vessel was docked.
He said he had not understood when he was recruited that he would be working illegally. He had to live on his trawler at all times and was told by the owner to hide and not talk to people in port. The crew would go fishing for four to five days at a time and then be required to mend nets and gear in harbour. “I worked continuously. We could be awake for two days with almost no sleep. It was horrible,” he told us.
European Communities minimum hours of rest regulations, which apply to employees, workers but not the self-employed, require no less than 10 hours in any 24-hour period and 77 hours in any seven-day period.
Abraham described being cheated of wages and being hungry when food ran out at sea. Eventually he jumped ship to escape.
He appears to be a victim of human trafficking, a criminal offence – defined as a form of modern slavery in the UK and Ireland – that involves the movement of people for exploitation. Whether the person consented to the journey is not relevant: key factors can include whether they were deceived, or their vulnerability or rights abused; how far they were controlled; and whether working and living conditions amount to exploitation. A person can only be definitively classified as trafficked once his or her experience has been assessed and a competent authority – in Ireland a senior police officer – has ruled.