A Guardian newspaper report on the abuse of African and Asian migrant workers says it has been an “open secret” that abuse in the Irish fishing industry exists.

Journalist Ella McSweeney said that this was an industry-wide problem, but conceded that there were also good Irish trawler owners. McSweeney worked with a team of journalists and reported on abuses such as low pay, no pay, withheld pay, forced long working-hours, sleep deprivation and a lack of mandatory basic training.

In the video (below) one of the alleged abused fishermen, Demie Omol, explains how he was trafficked from the Philippines to the United Kingdom to work on an Irish fishing boat where he ended up “penniless, exhausted and isolated.”

Speaking to the national broadcaster, RTÉ, on the radio show “Morning Ireland” McSweeney said many workers arrived in London’s Heathrow Airport and came into the Republic of Ireland, via Belfast. She said the responsibilities of authorities monitoring issues such as these were spread across too many departments. She also said that, while the laws in place are good, they are not being enforced.

"The courts are being too lenient with the kind of breaches that are going on,” McSweeney said. “As recently as a couple of months ago there were breaches of safety and legislation where an Egyptian fisherman was taken out to sea by a boat owner without any basic training."

Gráinne O'Toole, Workplace Rights Coordinator at the Migrants Rights Centre Ireland, has said that she is not surprised by these findings. She said currently in Ireland there was a gross exploitation of workers in a number of areas in the industry and she had heard of a number of cases of human trafficking and undocumented fishermen being exploited.

She also acknowledged that cracking down on these matters would mean that Irish fishermen would suffer.

O’Toole also said no concerted efforts have been made in the last number of years to address these issues. She said there was a lack of an identification system for trafficked people and agreed with McSweeney that the laws are in place but are not being enforced.

The representative for the International Transport Workers Federation, Ken Fleming, said the fishing industry had not had any work permits issued since 2005. The Federation maintains that 8,000 migrant workers are involved in the industry, mostly illegal.

Fleming said every vessel he had seen, without an Irish skipper, would have a 60 percent migrant crew, mostly undocumented.

He also said the Irish government was complicit.

Ireland’s Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Simon Coveney, denied that the Irish government has been “turning a blind eye" to reports of people-trafficking and exploitation of African and Asian workers on some Irish trawlers, RTE reports.

Simon Coveney has said reports of trafficking in the fishing industry has 'sharpened the focus of Govt' on the issue https://t.co/VDhI2lxmnI

— RTÉ News (@rtenews) November 2, 2015
On Tuesday the Irish government announced that they would establish a task force on the allegations regarding the treatment of workers on Irish fishing trawlers. The inter-departmental taskforce will include representatives from the Departments of Justice; Jobs, Enterprise & Innovation; Transport; Tourism and Sport; and Agriculture, Food and Marine, as well as the Attorney General’s office, relevant agencies and An Garda Síochána (police).

Coveney will chair the taskforce. The first meeting will be held this Thursday, Nov 5. The goal is to formulate a coordinated and effective cross Government approach on the matter.

The Minister told RTE a garda (police) unit had been established to investigate allegations of human trafficking in the fishing industry and separate units in the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Health Service Executive and the Legal Aid Board were dealing with human trafficking.

He appealed to anyone with evidence substantiating the allegations to tell the gardaí immediately.

Abuse in #Ireland fishing industry 'an open secret' https://t.co/xavBoRZUNv @rtenews pic.twitter.com/u18RpH73Gq

— Blue Planet Society (@Seasaver) November 3, 2015
Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Richard Bruton told RTE the Irish government cannot give work permits to contract workers in the fishing industry. He said the government provides permits in areas where there is a proven skill shortage and Ireland is unable to recruit within Europe.

He said, “Unfortunately work permits aren't appropriate to the majority of workers involved here. These seem to be involved in a cash-share arrangement, so they are contractors – they are not workers that we would give permits to.

"We give permits to areas where there is a proven skilled shortage, where the employer has proven that he can't recruit people within Europe."

Sinn Féin Fisheries spokesman Martin Ferris said a thorough investigation is needed. He told RTE if people "are being trafficked, and that appears to be the case, that needs to be dealt with and dealt with stringently."

The CEO of the Irish South/East Fish Producers Organisation Hugo Boyle said he was not aware of any abuse of workers in the fishing industry and said the story was being blown way out of proportion. He also said it was important to differentiate between those simply working illegally and those being exploited.

The Services Industrial Professional and Technical Union (SIPTU) called on Coveney to introduce employment protection legislation, proper training and rigorous inspection processes for migrant workers in the fishing industry.

On Monday evening, the Irish Fish Processing Organisation said it wanted this issue resolved.