Ireland faces US sanctions over fishing labor issues

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Ireland’s fishing industry is facing sanctions from US authorities after a US-based human rights group filed a report with US authorities alleging exploitation of workers migrants on board Irish fishing vessels.

In a petition to Customs and Border Protection (CBP) of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, headquartered in Washington D.C. legal defense group Liberty Shared asked CBP to exclude seafood “captured and/or produced in whole or in part by forced labor by participants in the fishing industry in the Republic of Ireland.” The petition named four Irish fishing companies that it said merited review by CBP.

CBP has the authority to place Hold Release Orders (WROs) on companies and fishing vessels, preventing their products from entering the United States. CBP issued WROs against five Taiwanese-owned fishing vessels and Chinese state-owned fishing company Dalian Ocean Fishing Company. While Irish seafood exports to the US are minimal, the US seafood market is the largest in the world.

Duncan Jepson, attorney and chief executive of Liberty Shared, which describes itself as a campaign group working to end modern slavery, pointed out that “weak preventions and protections against human trafficking and forced labor” in Ireland caught the attention of the organization. Warning. The US State Department’s listing of Ireland in the 2021 Trafficking in Persons Report has been a particular attraction for Liberty Shared to focus on issues in the Irish fishing industry, Jepson said.

Ireland lacks a strong system of governance and controls around work and accountability for breaches, according to Jepson. For example, an Egyptian fishworker who claimed to work 17 hours a day – after being contracted to work eight – was awarded 20,000 EUR (22,000 USD) in November 2021 by the Irish Labor Commission. Workplace Relations, a state agency responsible for adjudicating labor disputes. .

“There are allegations of fishermen and the governance of this industry and its members is weak, in addition to the general systemic weakness of the governance of the fishing industry,” he said.

A lack of governance and controls in Ireland’s fishing industry has led to a lack of data and information, which is part of why the country landed in the US report, Jepson said.

“Although there are allegations, the question is imports into the United States and whether these can be linked to the vessels and companies involved in the allegations, and that is difficult for many species because tracking and disclosure is limited,” he said.

While the European Union is considering an import ban mechanism similar to that put in place by the US CBP, a US ban on Irish fishing companies or vessels “would set a precedent”, Jepson told SeafoodSource. He said he thought the global fishing industry was likely heading towards “some kind of inflection point”.

“The data and information is constantly growing with respect to supply chains and claims,” ​​he said. “For those who fail to improve standards and commit illegal acts, this will trigger accountability actions in the US and perhaps, over time, in the EU”

Enforcement action on labor abuse complaints against fishing companies in Ireland or elsewhere will require high investigative precision from CBP, noted Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, a trade group representing the U.S. seafood industry.

“Addressing the challenge of labor rights violations is multifaceted, and strong policies, backed by action, send a message and have an impact,” he told SeafoodSource. “But it is important to note that regulators must act when there is clear and convincing evidence. Simply making obtuse charges and demanding action undermines what can be a powerful tool…If CBP can actually build a quality case around something as specific as a vessel, that would be a excellent work. Hitting the targeted bad actors could have a significant impact.

The International Transport Federation, a union representing some fishing workers, has called on the Irish government to scrap its non-standard work scheme, which was introduced in 2016 to regularize the status of non-EU citizens working on board Irish fishing vessels. . The ITF says the scheme effectively binds workers to their employers. In a recent submission for the Irish government’s review of the country’s atypical work scheme to the Department of Justice, the ITF’s fishing campaign manager in Ireland, Michael O’Brien, said the scheme visa permit has led to abuses including “overwork and poverty pay”.

“By giving the shipowner the option to register migrant fishermen with the state under this program, instead of giving fishermen the right to documentation, the program was fatally flawed from the start,” said said O’Brien. “Around 21% of current vessel owners, representing nearly 40% of the Irish fleet, have either had adverse operating rulings, are under ongoing Garda investigation for human trafficking , or are the subject of upcoming Workplace Relations Board hearings or unpaid wage investigations.

To improve wages and conditions, the ITF wants the non-standard work permit to require anglers working in Irish waters to be subject to the Critical Skills Permit scheme, which is run by the Irish Department of Enterprise, Trade and of Employment, which oversees workers brought into the country from abroad to address labor shortages in other sectors.

O’Brien said he spoke to representatives of MDU, the Ghanaian Seafarers’ Union, at a recent conference of the West Africa Fisheries Organization Project in Dakar, Senegal. , “to see what steps can be taken to combat the activities of bogus recruitment agents in Ghana who have been responsible for trafficking fishermen to Ireland in recent years and to disseminate information to fishing communities in Ghana about the traps and the dangers of coming to work in Ireland for exploitative employers.

Irish fishing vessel operators are also unhappy with the atypical work scheme. In a statement on behalf of several Irish fishing groups, including the Southern and Eastern Irish Producers’ Organization and the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation, the CEO of the Irish Fish Producers’ Organization (IFPO), John Ward, called for better communication between government departments responsible for implementing the permit regime and for paperwork. He also wants non-EEA anglers who have been in Ireland for more than five years on the AWS license to have the right to regularize their immigration status.

The industry has pushed back against a report by Maynooth University’s Department of Law, which documented the plight of foreign workers in Ireland’s fishing industry. The report “Experiences of non-EEA countries [European Economic Area] Workers in the Irish Fishing Industry”, published in October 2021, prompted the Irish government to announce a review of the atypical visa scheme. The report was based on interviews with 24 non-European Economic Area workers currently employed in the Irish fishing industry and those profiled were “recruited by an ITF staff member out of 328 fishermen non-EEA members” employed on Irish fishing vessels.

“The findings of the report were based on a specially selected 7% cohort. Whilst this does not denigrate the genuine complaints of this group of anglers, it is fair to point out that many commercial/industrial operations in Ireland could reach this level of employee dissatisfaction if a similar review were carried out, but it is unlikely that it attracts the same level of attention,” the IFPO said in a statement.

Without addressing any specific allegations of abuse made by the ITF or made in the report, the fishing organizations statement criticized the report, saying it was commissioned by the ITF, an organization which Ward says is biased against the Irish fishing industry.

Ward said SeafoodSource ITF’s suggestion that human trafficking was happening in the Irish fishing industry was “completely unwarranted”.

“It is fair to conclude that the remaining 93% [non-EEA workers not surveyed or interviewed by the ITF] did not have the same level of problems, and this sector also needs to be looked at, as there must be valuable lessons to be learned from those who have come to fish on Irish fishing vessels and made the transition successfully.

Photo courtesy of Mick Harper/Shutterstock

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