Wednesday, 8 February 2017
Last December I met a group of 40 Egyptian fishermen who are, or have been, working in Ireland. They travelled across the country to my home town of Drogheda to tell me their individual stories on foot of a report in The Guardianin November of 2015. The then Government, of which I was a member, moved to introduce an atypical permit scheme for non-EEA fishermen. It sought to do a couple of important things. It introduced a work permit and visa scheme which would bestow all rights of Irish employment law on non-EEA fishermen who applied for and received valid permits and contracts of employment. It also sought to ensure that there was a steady flow of legal and legitimate labour to work in an industry which depends on a predictable flow of skilled labour from Egypt and the Philippines, in particular, but also other states.
In creating that new system, what we sought to do was to help restore the reputation of an industry that had been tarnished and, importantly, to protect the dignity and rights of those working in Ireland in a very exposed, fragmented and difficult to reach sector. For the first six months of the scheme, applications were limited to those who were already here, but from what I have learned from the fishermen I have met, the International Transport Federation and from compliant trawler owners, with whom I have engaged, it is hard to conclude that the scheme has been a success. There is a gulf, for example, between the official figures for permits issued and the reality on the ground. I have encountered situations where some workers who have valid permits are effectively on the run because of disputes that they have had with skippers on the trawlers on which they were working. One worker from Egypt, who has been here for a number of years, has effectively been banished from the community in which he works because of a very legitimate dispute over the non-payment of wages. He has a valid permit, but he is receiving absolutely no protection from the State. I have, in some cases, sought emergency social welfare payments to assist some of these people to make ends meet only to be told that, in the first instance, they must report to the Irish National Immigration Service or the Garda National Immigration Bureau. I have heard testimony from some that they were being paid the national minimum wage rate for a 39-hour week, which would amount to around €360, while working on vessels for in excess of 100 hours per week in many cases. This is illegal and these kinds of claims need to be investigated. The rights of these workers need to be vindicated by the State.
Months into the operation of the scheme, as I said, I met with 40 fishermen from across the country in Drogheda. I was alarmed that of those 40 workers with whom I spoke only four claimed to have valid permits to work. The Minister may have seen a report by Lorna Siggins in yesterday's The Irish Timesthat a Mr. Elsisi from the Egyptian embassy said that he believed up to 2,000 Egyptians are working on Irish trawlers, North and South. The scheme limits the number of permits to be issued to 500, and nothing even close to that number has been issued. I have in my possession a letter of approval from the Department of Justice and Equality, issued in November of 2016, to allow a certain Egyptian fisherman to come to Ireland. The truth is that the said fisherman was already living and working here since 2014. The terms of the scheme-----
-----were in fact broken by the Department of Justice and Equality, the Department which has been charged by the State to operate the scheme.
I have spoken to a number of decent, compliant trawler owners who wanted the scheme to succeed and who have pointed out the flaws in the scheme to Departments. They want to be able to hire the skilled workers they need to operate their businesses, and they also want to see those who are thumbing their nose at the scheme to be held to account and to be taken to task by the agencies which are obliged to enforce the terms of the scheme.
There is some common ground-----
-----between the International Transport Federation, the trade union representing the workers, and the industry. Both want to see the scheme reformed, and want to see a new scheme in place to protect workers and works for the industry. That is something I believe that the agencies of the State need to consider seriously and urgently.
I thank Senator Nash for raising this important matter and to apologise on behalf of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, who cannot be here. It is now almost 18 months since the issue of the employment of non-EEA crew members in the Irish fishing fleet was highlighted in the media as an issue of concern. The Guardian, in particular, highlighted issues, with claims of exploitation of migrant workers on Irish fishing trawlers. Following these revelations, the Government moved swiftly to address the concerns and abuses highlighted through an inter-departmental task force chaired by the then Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, which was established in November 2015. The task force, of which the Senator in his then capacity as Minister of State with responsibility for business and employment was an active member, met on a number of occasions and a new scheme was developed that addressed the issues of concern, improved the situation for non-EEA workers, reduced the possibility of abuse and allowed the fishing industry to meet its labour needs.As one of the authors of the report, the Senator is aware that the scheme only applies to crew members working on licensed and registered fishing vessels in the polyvalent, beamer and other specific segments of the Irish fleet where the vessels are more than 15 m in length overall, multi-crewed and labour intensive.
The role of the Tánaiste's Department comes at the end of a process that clears the way for a non-EEA national to be employed on a particular boat after the input of the various departmental and statutory bodies with oversight of the sector. The Department of Justice and Equality provides, through a special atypical working scheme for seafarers, work permission for non-EEA fishermen. This permission provides an appropriate pathway through which this category of worker can be lawfully employed within the industry. Following this, the relevant statutory bodies responsible for implementing employment law, including employment protection, can effectively discharge their responsibilities as part of the overall regulatory regime for the employment of non-EEA workers. The programme commenced on 15 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. However, owing to the slow uptake of the scheme, the Department extended the initial three-month period from 15 May to 30 June 2016.
The new scheme required the establishment of the central depository of contracts, managed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, to record, examine and monitor the number of contracts in the scheme which was to be capped at a maximum of 500; a pre-clearance system managed by the central depository to be introduced for all applications; and the grant of atypical working permission. Like many other others, the fishing industry is not immune to abuse by unscrupulous employers. Therefore, it is important that these overall arrangements which involve the co-operation of all stakeholders remain a deterrent to such abuses to protect employees. To that end, officials in the Department of Justice and Equality have worked with others within the industry to ensure compliance where issues arise that were not dealt with by the appropriate authorities. Officials from the Department of Justice and Equality have contacted their counterparts in the Departments of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation with a view to meeting to assess the overall operation of the scheme to date.
I am glad that there are moves afoot to review the operation of the scheme, but it has been brought into disrepute to a certain degree by what I have heard directly from fishermen from Egypt, some of whom have been in Ireland for years and are still operating without permits. I was shocked to read testimony in The Irish Timesyesterday in an article by Ms Lorna Siggins who had attended a meeting organised by the International Transport Workers Federation in Liberty Hall. It is unprecedented for a representative of a foreign embassy in this country to draw the State's attention to a matter of this seriousness through the national media and make a claim that, of the approximately 2,000 of the representative's fellow countrymen operating in Ireland, many hundreds were without valid permits, even though a permit system was in place. The scheme could be better enforced. There were difficulties in getting it off the ground. The Minister alluded to this when he stated the initial three-month period had to be extended for a variety of reasons, even though it had been intended to limit the scheme to those living in Ireland. There is some common ground between employers and the trade union representing workers. The common view is that the scheme can and should be improved. We all agree that the industry cannot continue to contribute to our economic development in the absence of a scheme to allow non-EEA skilled labourers to work in the sector.
Those who come to Ireland in good faith need the State's protection to vindicate and enforce their rights, but I cannot conclude that this is happening to a successful degree. Efforts are being made, but more needs to be done.
I can give the Senator a copy of my prepared response, but this matter is close to my heart. As I am from an inland county, I am not just referring to fishermen but also to undocumented workers. The Senator is aware of my background in that regard. If he wants to drop details of his specific concerns into my private office, I will bring them directly to the attention of the Tánaiste and ask that the relevant issues be included in any review of the scheme.