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‘I felt the punch land’: Human trafficking of overseas fishermen in Ireland

Geela Garcia, Maria Delaney - Philstar.com
âI felt the punch landâ: Human trafficking of overseas fishermen in Ireland
Many migrant fishers are in debt before they even begin to work on Irish vessels due to agency fees.
Maria Delaney via Noteworthy.

Part one of a two-part report. Read part two here.

MANILA, Philippines — “After several years working back and forth as a seaman, it’s the first time that I experienced an employer that abused me. They mistreated us.”

Lloyd* didn’t know he would be fishing in Ireland. When he signed his contract in the Philippines, it was with a company based in Northern Ireland for work on a UK-registered boat.

But once his flight landed in Belfast — via Abu Dhabi and London — his new employer picked him up and a few hours later he arrived in a fishing port in County Cork, on the southwest coast of Ireland, where the vessel was docked.

The 40-year-old is both an engineer and deckhand, able to fix engines as well as maneuver nets on a boat. He is well used to tough work, with over a decade of experience in the profession, including in Scotland and his hometown on one of the most southern islands of the Philippines.

He came from a family familiar with seafaring and after his brother worked on boats in Europe, Lloyd followed in his footsteps. Paid just Php 380 per day at home, like many other migrant workers from the archipelago, he left the country to seek better-paying jobs abroad.

“Compared to all my other years working as a seafarer, this is the hardest because I don’t get any rest… Fishing is continuous. You only get to sleep three to four hours, and work 20 to 21 hours a day.”

Lloyd is one of the hundreds of fishers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA) in Ireland, with workers from the Philippines, Ghana, Indonesia and Egypt on trawlers catching whitefish and prawns off Ireland.

Source: Maria Delaney via Noteworthy

Over the past six months, Philstar.com teamed up with journalists in Ireland to investigate modern slavery in the Irish fishing industry, with a focus on Filipino workers.

The team combed through almost 100 inspection reports and numerous other documents obtained through freedom of information (FOI) requests, submitted press requests to Irish government departments and agencies, and spoke to fishers, advocates, and those working in the fishing industry.

This investigation was supported by Journalismfund.eu’s Modern Slavery Unveiled grant programme. A series of articles were also published by the investigative platform Noteworthy in Ireland and can be read here.

‘I felt the punch land’

For over seven months, Lloyd worked on the UK-registered boat off Ireland. He was assigned to pull the net during the times he was at sea fishing prawns and, as an engineer, he also had to be on alert in case of any problem with the vessel’s engine.

Though on a UK visa, he was also asked to fix a tractor engine at his employer’s home on Irish soil.

“We can only rest if the weather is bad. We are thankful when there are strong winds because there’s a possibility we won’t go to the sea, but that still depends on the owner of the ship, and sometimes that’s not enough of a reason.”

Lloyd said that he experienced racism on the ship, with around 70,000 Php being lodged into his bank account per month which, depending on the catch, was significantly less than crew members from the European Union (EU). He also said he was physically abused by a skipper, being punched “randomly in the stomach”.

“It hurt. I felt the punch land. I told him if he did that again I’d report him.”

Human trafficking for labor exploitation can involve a number of dimensions which can be assessed using a set of methodologies.

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), a global union federation of transport workers' trade unions in the UK, during their assessment, found numerous indicators applied to Lloyd’s case including: “Deceived about the nature of the job, location or employer”, “excessive working days or hours”, “violence on victims” and “debt bondage”.

However, despite being assessed by both An Garda Siochána — the Irish police service, always known as the gardaí — as well as the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in recent months, Lloyd’s case has not been taken any further.

He was not asked to make a formal signed statement by the gardaí. Now, because he is undocumented, he faces possible deportation in the coming months.

He is not alone.

No prosecutions to date

The National Referral Mechanism is a framework in Ireland for referring victims of human trafficking and ensuring they receive appropriate support.

Between 2016 and 2020, just one person was not admitted to the National Referral Mechanism, out of 25 allegations relating to the fishing industry.

But latest figures provided to the investigative team by the gardaí show that since the start of 2021, there were 10 allegations, with just four victims admitted to this mechanism.

Michael O’Brien, fisheries campaign lead at the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) and who initially interviewed Lloyd when he presented to them — claimed that the gardaí, “the Department of Justice, the DPP — as a collective — have failed to deliver for migrant fishers” and other vulnerable workers when it comes to human trafficking. “There’s been an across-the-board failure.”

Updated figures given by the gardaí to our team show that there have been 35 referrals made to them since 2017 “in respect of the Irish fishing industry”, with six investigation files forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecution (DPP) and a number of others ongoing.

And importantly, has this led to any prosecutions? An Irish police spokesperson said: “The Director of Public Prosecutions has not directed any prosecutions on any file to date.”

An Garda Síochána told us that it investigates “all matters pertaining to any specific case and a file is forwarded to the DPP who will direct to prosecute or not”.

Though Lloyd was referred by the ITF to Irish authorities, he was not formally recognized as a victim of human trafficking by the Irish police.

These issues have been known for a long time; an investigation by The Guardian in 2015 exposed how migrant workers were being abused and trafficked in the Irish fishing industry. In response, the government introduced the Atypical Working Scheme for non-EEA crew in the Irish fishing fleet to try to regulate the industry.

Almost 50% of current valid holders of this working permission are from the Philippines.

Yet the problem hasn’t gone away. Experts state that the Scheme has now become a vehicle to exploit the same workers it was introduced to protect.

At least 4% (18) of non-EEA fishers who were Atypical Working Scheme permission holders have been formally recognized as victims of trafficking since its inception by the government in 2016, with many others taking cases relating to unpaid wages and poor working conditions to the Workplace Relations Commission (WRC).

The WRC is an independent statutory body in Ireland that investigates pay and work conditions and awards compensation to workers when breaches occur.

An expert who has represented fishers in court cases told the investigative team that this work permission made it “legal to exploit” migrant fishers, with few “real consequences”.

Vessels that employ non-EEA workers include polyvalent and beam trawlers of greater than 15m length. Source: Maria Delaney via Noteworthy

In recent years, exploitation and trafficking within the Irish fishing sector have been reported both nationally and internationally — by the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI) in 2017, by researchers from Maynooth University in 2021 and in successive annual Trafficking in Persons (TIPs) reports from the United States government.

Issues in the Irish fishing industry are consistently cited by the US TIPs reports, with the latest one acknowledging ”increasing efforts” by Ireland. However, it added that “systemic deficiencies in victim identification, referral and assistance persisted” — one of “several key areas” where “the government did not meet the minimum standards”.

In the same 2022 report, though issues were identified, the Government of the Philippines fully met the US law’s minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking.

A spokesperson for the Irish Department of Justice told us that “recent progress has been acknowledged and reflected” in this report. This includes the development of a new National Action Plan on Human Trafficking which is expected to be agreed soon”.

One motive for these “increasing efforts” was the publication of a report by researchers from Maynooth University in October 2021. This research was funded by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).

The study documented the experiences of non-EEA workers, including Egyptians and Filipinos, in the Irish fishing industry and found “extremely long working hours with few breaks”, pay often below minimum wage and racist insults “were common workplace experiences” of fishers interviewed.

Though trafficking was not the focus of the report, it highlighted a number of important trafficking-related issues including “severe violations such as withholding of wages, being forced to perform additional unpaid work-related tasks” as well as “the use of deception and coercion as a means of control”.

The issue of trafficking within the fishing industry can be “tricky”, according to the lead researcher on the study Dr. Clíodhna Murphy, associate professor of law at Maynooth University. That is because it is usually related to “trafficking for the purposes of labour exploitation”.

“In Ireland, we don’t have… what they have in the UK — the idea of modern slavery,” Murphy explained. This “can include forced labor separate from trafficking”.

‘Vast majority of the industry wants a solution’

The findings of these reports are contested by organizations that represent fishing vessel owners.

A response to the Maynooth University report, from three Irish producer organizations — Irish South & East Producer Organisation (IS&EPO), Irish Fish Producers Organisation (IFPO), and Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation (KFO), submitted to the Department of Justice in Ireland as part of the review of the AWS fishers’ scheme — and obtained by our investigative team via freedom of information request — stated:

The ITF is very biased against the fishing industry and accuses Irish vessel owners of human trafficking which is a very serious accusation and completely unjustified.

This is reiterated by Patrick Murphy, chief executive officer at Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation (IS&WPO) — who represents vessel owners. He challenged whether all the fishers admitted to the National Referral Mechanism were victims of trafficking citing the lack of subsequent prosecutions in relation to the fishing industry.

He also said “there has to be responsibility on the person that is coming over” and claimed that some are “coming over under false pretenses” — unqualified or not able for the hard work involved in fishing here.

“I don’t believe that there is 100% goodness in the industry. I believe fellas could fall on hard times or there could be miscommunications…. But the vast majority of the industry wants a solution here. The only one that can provide a solution is our government.”

The ITF’s O’Brien told the investigation team that “fundamentally vessel owners, as employers, have to be responsible”, adding that “patchy enforcement on the part of various authorities” needed to be addressed.

In regard to cases where fishers are brought through Northern Ireland, Murphy said that “is a scandalous way to treat human beings” and “wouldn’t stand over that for one second”. He said: “In an instance like that, that’s complete abuse”.

In addition to Lloyd, a number of other migrant fishers have been alleged victims of trafficking in recent years. According to the International Transport Workers’ Federation’s O’Brien, this includes other Filipinos recruited by similar means, with some still remaining on fishing vessels.

Spending months paying off recruitment debt

Another challenge that Lloyd and other Filipino fishers experienced was a fee being charged by recruitment agencies.

Though some fishers who spoke to our team didn’t have to pay such a fee, those who went through one particular recruitment agency in the Philippines all told us of the stress that these charges incurred, with many acquiring high-interest loans to pay it off.

Lloyd was one such fisher. Despite exhausting working hours, he was not able to send a single cent home for his children’s education during the first three months of his time in Ireland because his salary had to pay his agency’s placement fee.

He had to pay “show money” of Php 100,000 to a Filipino recruitment agency near Manila — a fee he hadn’t encountered before when working abroad and an illegal practice under Philippine law. This was paid through a loan from a lending company located four kilometers away from the agency’s office.

Lloyd explained that the lending company had the ATM card of the bank account that his wages were lodged into. “They are the ones withdrawing money for me.”

Through conversations with Irish workers involved in the recruitment of migrant workers to the fishing industry, our investigation found out that vessel owners were also paying fees to the same agency for these workers to come to Ireland.

This is not a new issue, being reported by media outlets in relation to trafficking cases over the past number of years. Yet it continues to persist, with experts concerned that it puts migrant fishers in Ireland at risk of debt bondage — where victims are tricked into working for little or no money to repay a debt.

We also saw email correspondence between a vessel owner and another Filipino agency after a fisherman from the Philippines left the vessel due to allegedly not being paid per the terms of his contract. The agency wrote that fisher should be “blacklisted”.

According to Sancha Magot, who interacts with many fishers from the Philippines and other non-EEA countries as drop-in center manager at the Migrant Rights Centre Ireland (MRCI), “agencies are there to earn money — they are profiting”.

“Some unscrupulous recruiters don’t care what will happen to the fisher or others that they deploy as long as they will earn.”

When the Department of Justice in Ireland was asked about the practice of agencies charging migrant fishers and if anything was being done to address the exploitation of workers by agencies, a spokesperson said that “applicants under the Atypical Workers Scheme do not need to use an agent to submit their application” and “can do so directly” through their online portal. 

We also asked the Department of Justice if there were any plans to regulate agencies such as this more strictly. A spokesperson said that “the regulation of employment and recruitment agencies operating outside of this state is a matter for the relevant State’s own authorities”.

MRCI’s Magot said that “the Filipino government — as it happens in the country of origin — should [take] more responsibility”.

We asked the Department of Migrant Workers in the Philippines — who are “tasked to protect the rights and promote the welfare of overseas Filipino workers” — a number of questions about the exploitation and trafficking of Filipinos in the fishing industry and what is being done to address recruitment agency charges. We did not receive a response in time for publication.

‘I hope people can help’

Lloyd's mother worries about the cost of sending her grandkids to school. Source: Geela Garcia

Lloyd’s mother and two teenage sons live in an agricultural area of the Philippines, surrounded by coconut trees. They were kept in the dark about the reality of his situation and only found out because he was unable to send money to support his children.

The only thing he was able to transfer home was P16,000 which was used to repair the house’s bathroom, which is still not finished.

“We were able to buy hollow blocks and some cement for it. The money left was sent back to Lloyd, because he eventually needed cash,” said Martha*, Lloyd’s mother.

Lloyd currently works on a farm in Ireland. His 69-year-old mother told the investigative team that she felt he was abandoned, “going [from] place to place to find someone who’ll give him food”.

“We are worried about him, and it’s sad that he’s working as a farmer over a mechanic, but he said that he really couldn’t handle the maltreatment anymore.”

Because Lloyd is barely earning, according to Martha, she works to help her grandkids by selling coconuts and making sweeping brushes. “We don’t know how we’ll be able to buy [their] uniform. A set costs P2,500 (€42) to P5,000 (€84). It’s a lot of money.”

For Lloyd, he makes a final plea saying his circumstances are currently very difficult. “I hope people can help me with my situation.”

 

*Name has been changed

 

The investigation was supported by Journalismfund.eu’s Modern Slavery Unveiled grant program. The project team consisted of Geela Garcia, visual journalist in the Philippines, and in Ireland: Maria Delaney, editor of investigative platform Noteworthy, and Louise Lawless, freelance journalist. A series of articles were also published by Noteworthy and can be read here.

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