A complaint to Ireland's Broadcasting Commission over an Irish television series called "Skippers" has exposed deeply-ingrained abuse and illegalities in the country's trawler fishing industry that would have brought shame even in the pre-industrial era. The complainant is the International Transport Federation who believe that RTE, Ireland's national television and radio broadcaster, showed an indulgence to the Irish fishing industry in stark contrast to what is happening in Britain. It goes further by saying: "We believe that the block on cleaning up this appalling situation is at the political level and reflects the power of the fishing industry in Ireland, as indeed does the sycophantic documentary broadcast by RTE."
But how bad are the infringements, is RTE being unfairly pilloried and who is ultimately to blame for the exploitation of non EU nationals, many of whom are working illegally? In its defence, RTE claimed that it was 'an observational documentary series' and that it could not be expected to cover every aspect of the conditions on the trawlers in a few episodes. It would also be naive for viewers to expect hard-searching questions from RTE on issues of badly-treated illegal migrants as the skippers would clam up and prevent any more trips by cameramen. There has also been a similar television series in Britain called "Trawlermen", and it seems no such awkward questions were asked on that series, despite the fact that Scottish trawlers are also up to their necks in migrant abuse and illegalities. A whiff of double standards, perhaps?
Examples of shabby abuse claimed by ITF are many and serious. Ken Fleming, ITF's inspector for Ireland, says that in his experience helping fishermen, particularly non EU nationals working illegally and who form a high proportion of the workforce, "the industry is rife with exploitation." Illegal crew members have been dumped on quays without any pay to make their own way home, he says. Others have been seriously injured, spending months in hospital, while many were grossly underpaid. They live in cramped conditions on land in caravans or sleep on board because they cannot afford to pay the rent, says Mr Fleming. There have even been cases where foreign migrant workers expecting to work on deep-sea cargo ships on three or six-month contracts have been shanghaied onto Irish fishing vessels even though they have had no training on trawlers, and so pose a risk to themselves and other crew members. "When we met the fishing industry owners," said Mr Fleming, "they actually refused to contemplate paying the national minimum wage. It appears that they enjoy immunity from the laws that apply to the rest of the community. Fishermen, many of them non-EU nationals working here illegally, are picking up the tab by working in hazardous and harsh conditions on our behalf."
There seems to be some justification for the claim that the Irish Government is foot dragging because it does not want to offend a powerful industry. As ITF explained, back in 2008 the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment drew up regulations to govern the Irish fishing industry. ITF received the impression that these regulations would be introduced shortly to ensure workers were treated in a fair and humane way. Nothing was done.
There is no doubt that the Irish fishing industry is a powerful one, employing 11,000 workers at sea, which has been stable since 1997. If UK fishing figures are any guide then the 11,000 fishermen support 10 times that number of land jobs. Their fishing fleet has actually grown to almost 2,000 vessels, up from 1,800 in 1997, while at the same time the overall EU fishing fleet has fallen by about 20%. Between 1954 and 2004 the total volume of fish caught in Irish waters rose from 160,000 tonnes to 530,000 tonnes. Irish boats now catch about 25% of fish caught in Irish waters, up from an average of 16% in the 1970s, and currently Irish fish exports are worth about Euro360 million.
These figures are in stark contrast to what has been happening in Britain, where currently only 12,700 fishermen support about 10 times that number of land-based jobs. Between 1973 and 2006 the UK catch fell by 45% and in 2007 its vessels landed 610,000 tonnes of fish, including shellfish, worth about £645 million. These figures show the much greater, relative importance of fishing to Ireland's economy and suggests that conditions are not such that Irish trawler owners are hard pressed by declining incomes and therefore have no excuse to underpay illegal migrant workers who are too frightened by their status to raise objections.
Ireland has done relatively well out of the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) since joining the EU but that policy has been an indisputable catastrophe for Britain's fishing industry and the economy. According to a comprehensive investigation by the Taxpayers Alliance, the total annual cost to the UK of the CFP is £2.8 billion. It could also be argued that the CFP has been an unmitigated failure and obscenely wasteful, as by the EU's own admission between 40% and 60% of all caught fish is dumped dead, owing to quota regulations. In some trawl fisheries the dump rate is 70-90%.
British trawler owners could be said to have a much greater grievance than Irish owners and therefore a higher incentive to cut corners and abuse foreign crews to improve profitability but to the authorities' great credit the UK Border Agency began a massive crackdown on similar abuses after fishing boat owners and operators failed to respond to an amnesty. They now face fines of up to £10,000 or two years imprisonment if they continue to ignore regulations. Owners, masters or agents caught bringing in non EEA crew into the UK intending to use them in breach of the law may also face prosecutions for facilitation, which carries penalties of up to 14 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine. The concessionary visa arrangement was in effect a three-months amnesty introduced in March 2010 that would allow up to 1,500 migrant fishermen working illegally in British ports to be registered with the authorities and thus be allowed to work legally until September 2011, provided they received proper employment contracts.
MAIB rebukes MCA over fishing accident
A serious accident on board the beam scalloper, Olivia Jean, on October 10, 2009 has not only revealed abuse of unqualified, sleep-deprived crew, three of whom were Ghanaians, but shows shortcomings in the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's administration of survey and inspections, despite a previous internal review, says the Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB). It also found that the main trawl wire which had snapped, not for the first time, was not subject to inspections under LOLER. Consequently, there is a need for the fishing industry's exceptions to compliance with LOLER to be reviewed. Following this, the guidance on LOLER and PUWER to both surveyors and the industry should be clarified to ensure that lifting and working equipment on board fishing vessels is properly maintained and surveyed. MAIB also suggests that to reduce the risk of fatigue-induced accidents the fishing industry's extensive exceptions from the working time regulations should be reviewed to ensure that the risk of crew fatigue is properly controlled.
MAIB believes that a policy change within the MCA is required to improve fishing vessel standards and fishermen's occupational safety. "While safety remains the owners' responsibility," says the report, "MAIB believes the deep-rooted failings in the MCA's procedures require significant policy changes to improve fishing vessel occupational standards and to ensure the safety of fishermen."
For long now, fishing has been the most dangerous of occupations, but the deep-seated greed of many trawler owners is now adding to the risks of injuries and deaths and nowhere is this more glaring than among Irish trawler operators. Back in the 1930s Ireland was roundly condemned for its filthy trade in live horse exports. Must it now be condemned for its filthy trade in migrant fishermen?
This story first appeared in Bob Couttie's Maritime Accident Casebook under the headline: "Ireland's trawler fishing shame exposed"